Monday, March 31, 2008

Changing the world, one blog at a time

I am teaching a unit on media to my Grade 12 English students. We have been looking at a number of media-related topics, including “blogging”. On Friday, I came across this article in the Hamilton Spectator about the influence one blogger had on AOL. (Click here for “Got a beef? Your blog can make a company tremble.”)

According to the article, there are 35 million blogs on the Internet; there are even more blog readers. As a blogger myself, I wonder how useful, illuminating or informative my blog actually is. In the past month and a half, my blog has been viewed over 600 times. A handful of those visitors are friends and family; the bulk of visitors are people looking for information on a range of topics posted on my blog. Most of those visitors come from Google searches; for example, type in “Why study Shakespeare” in the Google search window. Today (March 31st, 2008) , my blog, galumphing, is the sixth hit on the Google search out of 449,000 hits. I think what I have to say about Shakespeare is worth saying, and worth reading. I am a professional educator, so my ideas about literature are peer reviewed by my department as well as by my colleagues and substantiated by my formal education. However, when someone blogs, there is no guarantee that he really know what he is talking about. I also blog with distinctly Christian worldview and perspective; to some, that would undermine what I have to say.

The daunting reality is that anyone (and their dog, it seems) can create a blog. There is no peer review, there is no formal training required, and there is no overt ethical screening. The individual “blogger” is the only one who reviews, sensors and ultimately decides what appears online to the thousands of Internet surfers. The individual reader is left to discern truth from fiction, detect bias and evaluate the relevance of the posts. This is disconcerting, given the steadily declining level of analytical literacy among average university undergraduates, much less the average reader.

Twenty years ago, the hot-under-the-collar, ranting person found an audience with a handful of friends at the local Tim Horton’s. If the rant turned ugly, then the manager would probably turn you out. Today, that hot-under-the-collar rant is published worldwide.

Ultimately, people need to be extra cautious what they say: we need to think before we “write.” The irony is, this caution comes at a time when people rarely think before they do anything.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

At the Kilns: Learning from C.S. Lewis

This series on galumphing called “At the Kilns” is devoted to learning from the writings of C.S. Lewis. I thought it might be appropriate to explain what The Kilns actually is.

C.S. Lewis lived and worked for over thirty years at his home in Oxford called “The Kilns.” (See the photo on the sidebar). He also died there on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The house was named after the brick kilns that stood nearby. A kiln is an “oven” for hardening or drying bricks (or pottery, or whatever you intend to harden and dry). The main intent of the title, “At the Kilns” is simple to describe my “experience reading Lewis”—I suppose a double meaning may be that I am “hardening” my faith, or perhaps making bricks to build my faith…? Or perhaps that is cheesy. I am not getting “baked” or “drying up”…

The Kilns has been purchased and refurbished by the C.S. Lewis Foundation to be used for sabbaticals and research, although tours can be arranged by appointment. I am planning on visiting Oxford (Lord willing) next March; the Kilns is top on the list of places to see (that, and Lewis’s favourite pub, the “Bird and Baby”).

Lewis on The Kilns
On Sunday, July 6th, 1930, C.S. Lewis and his brother Warren view The Kilns with the intention to purchase the home. Upon viewing the property, Lewis records, “The eight-acre garden is such stuff dreams are made on… The house… stands at the entrance to its own grounds at the northern foot of Shotover [Hill] at the end of a narrow lane… To the left of the house are the two brick kilns from which it takes its name—in front, a lawn and hard tennis court—then a large bathing pool, beautifully wooded, and with a delightful circular brick seat overlooking it. After that a steep wilderness broken with ravines and nooks of all kinds runs up to a little cliff topped by a thistly meadow, and then the property ends in a thick belt of fir trees, almost a wood. The view from the cliff over the dim blue distance is simply glorious.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

My Marriage and Tea

Over the past few months, my wife and I have been enjoying "tea time" in our living room; it is a time where we can sit together, enjoy a pot of tea (tea always tastes better when steeped in a pot as opposed to a mug), nibble on a little sweet treat and talk... no kids, no chores, no work. In the old days, we used to call it "couch time" (from the Growing Kids God's Way parenting course). It is amazing how easy it is to forget to spend time together on a regular basis with no interruptions and no distractions. Although tea may not be good for the teeth, it is good for my marriage.

Anyway, I came across this article on the "Abondante Living" web page, which gives the scoop on tea drinking traditions.

At the Kilns: A Blessing from War

Today in History

Ninety years ago today, on March 24, 1918, Edward “Paddy” Moore, Lewis’s friend and army roommate, is reported missing in action. It is later learned that Paddy had been killed three days prior resisting a German offensive at Pargny, France.

C.S. Lewis fought in one of history’s worst and costliest wars. He lost many comrades-in -arms, he won a medal for bravery and he was wounded by shrapnel from a nearby explosion that killed a soldier next to Lewis. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his impressions from the front lines: “the horrible smashed men still moving like half crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet.”

Being a Canadian and a Lover of Peace

As a Canadian, I have cherished our global role as peacekeepers, even though some missions ended disasterously. Growing up during the Cold War and during a time when Canada was primarily engaged in "peace-keeping" I am only now—slowly—awakening to the reality of Canada's current war in Afghanistan. The question of pacifism is floating around in both Christian and non-Christian circles. What about war? To help answer the question, I turn to my mentor, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis on War

Despite loosing a friend and enduring such horrible experiences, Lewis ardently rejected pacifism. During the Second World War, although too old for active duty, Lewis volunteered to serve on home front duties. I recently read two lectures given by Lewis on the subject of war, “Learning in War-time” and “Why I am not a Pacifist.” The latter lecture is a model of Lewis's impeccably logical mind, and offers a powerful and persuasive case against pacifism. I have been mulling over for a few weeks as to how I would blog about this lecture. In the end, I must resort to simply refer you, if you are interested, to read the essay for yourself. What I will blog about is an excerpt from the former lecture, "Learning in War-time."

In "Learning in War-time," Lewis asks what war does to death? He first explains what is does not do: war does not increase deaths, “since 100 percent of us die;” it does not increase our “chances of a painful death.” He states that on the battlefield we have a better chance of a quick, painless death; “what we call a natural death is usually preceded by suffering.” He goes on to say that war does not “decrease our chances of dying at peace with God.” What other circumstance, Lewis argues, would “better persuade a man to prepare for death”?

“Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

At the Kilns: The Dangerous Lion

As I continue my tutelage under the writings of C. S. Lewis, I am also reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my children. We recently read the wonderful scene in the home of the Beavers, where the tired, cold and bedraggled Pevensie children have a hot meal of fresh trout, potatoes, creamy butter, “gloriously sticky” marmalade rolls and tea (Mr. Beaver imbibed beer, or at least one frothy pint) . After a satisfying meal, Mr. Beaver reclines with his pipe and proceeds to tell the children about Narnia and Aslan.

When asked who—or what—is Aslan, Mr. Beaver states: “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” Both Susan and Lucy ask, “Is he—quite safe?”

Mr. Beaver candidly replies, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter.

What a beautiful portrait of God; He is not safe, but He is good. How I long to see Him!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Theology in Sound of Music and Knowing the Will of God

I am directing the spring musical at my school and this year we are performing the Sound of Music. At one point in the musical, Maria is asked by Mother Abbess what the most important thing in life was. Maria responds, “To find out what was the will of God and then go and do it.” I don’t think she was right, though. The most important thing in life is to glorify God.

The question of how do we know what God wants us to do is a tricky issue, one that bestsister and I have been discussing on this blog. When I ask myself what God wants me to do, there are often three reasons for asking. Two “wrong” reasons and one “right” reason.

The first wrong reason is that I already know what God wants me to do, but I am hoping for a different answer. The other day I was trying to “get out” of a commitment; I thought I would seek the advice of a friend, but then I decided not to. I already knew what my friend would say, so I wanted to find some other friend who would give me the advice I wanted to hear. Sometimes my search for God’s will is like that. What I need in these situations is a heart that loves to do what is right. This comes with daily dependence and communion with God in prayer and through His word.

The second wrong reason I seek the will of God is that I have an over inflated view of myself and I want to do something “more religious” that what I am currently doing; something big and dramatic and “über-godly.” Like Maria in the Sound of Music, she desires the overtly religious life of a Benedictine abbey. Marrying the Captain and being a mother to the seven orphaned von Trapp children seems too temporal and secular. While Maria was mulling this choice, she says, “I’ve pledged my life to God’s service. I’ve pledged my life to God.” Mother Abbess replies, “My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn’t mean you love God less.” I have often debated whether I should be a pastor or a teacher; somehow the role of a pastor seems to be a far more spiritual application of my gifts. The Abbess’s response to Maria is the same for me: just because I teach high school English doesn’t mean I am serving God less.

Another way to say this is a lack of contentment for where God has placed me NOW. I think I sometimes say, like the ear in Paul’s metaphor for the church, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body.” The idea is absurd. I need to view my “calling” within the body of Christ, manifest in the local assembly of Christians that I am a part. I can teach and preach and minister to the body of Christ whether I am a vocational or lay minister. I need to suppress my need to find “individual” fulfillment; God has called me to be part of His Church. I think many North American Christians (myself included) buy into the “cult of the individual” and view themselves as islands. We are not mavericks who need to “do something great for God.” I am not Indiana Jones, snapping my bullwhip and battling the dark forces of Nazis (or Soviets in the new instalment of the franchise) for “fortune and glory.”

The consumer-like approach to church life (cp. “church-hopping”) is epidemic in the Western church. Christians choose churches based on whether there is a hockey team or mid-morning snacks. These are Christians, not unbelievers. Unbelievers, I think, look for genuine people who live life well… ordinary life. On an individual level, Christians assess where they should “invest” their gifts for the best spiritual return. But Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Co 10:31). As C.S. Lewis writes, “All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God… and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not.”

The third reason—the right reason---for seeking the will of God is if God opens a door of opportunity. It is handy when He closes another door, so you have only one option to choose from. But what if there are “two answers”, like the old Hokus Pick song of the same name.

Hmmm. Cliff hanger...

Alas, this post is getting too long already! The third reason, I need to leave for another post. In a nutshell, I think the filter for all choices and decisions needs to be, Am I doing this for His glory? Am I glorifying God by doing or not doing this or that? This includes, is it biblical, am I trusting God, am I waiting on Him, am I walking in His spirit, am I obedient to His clear commands, am I adding to His commands, am I content with where I am right now...?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

At the Kilns: Digging moles, cocking crows and doing what we were meant to do

A dear family friend, bestsister, posted a comment on a previous post of mine, where I cited C.S. Lewis stating that “A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow”---in other words, we must do what we were created to do. Bestsister goes on to ask, “How does one know exactly what it is they were created to do?” We know that we were “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14) and that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10). But the question remains, “What are we supposed to do?”

On her blog, she recently took a personality test and discovered that she was an “encourager”---an apt designation, as she has been a blogging encourager, especially in light of my sometimes slack blogging habits. I took the same test, but I came up as a “person in transition.” Apparently, I am neither here nor there. Fortunately, I did not despair, and I took a personality test I participated in last year. You can take it by clicking here.

Fortunately, the test did not leave me in limbo. I am an ENFJ, which stands for Extraverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging, also known as the Teacher Idealist. According to Joe Butt, I am among “the benevolent ‘pedagogues’ of humanity.” I was surprised by the descriptions of the Teacher Idealist, much of which I recognized as depicting my personality. On the Keirsey Temperament webpage, Teacher Idealists make up less than 2% or 3% of a population. I am a rare fellow, it seems. The top recommended job for people like me is, of course, teacher.

My wife took the same test, and she is an ISTJ, which stands for Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging, also known as Inspector Guardian (or as I like to say, affectionately, Inspector General). Fictional ISTJs are Puddleglum, the marshwiggle (from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair) and Eeyore. Funny thing is, my favourite character in Winnie the Pooh is Eeyore and Puddleglum is unabashedly my favourite hero of The Silver Chair.

Whatever one may think of these sort of tests, I found it tremendously illuminating; especially illuminating is the reality that not everyone thinks the same way I do or is motivated by the same things that motivate me. This has been helpful in my marriage as well; it’s good to know I am married to Mrs. Puddleglum.

Having a better idea of who we are still doesn't completely answer the question of what we should do. In his excellent essay on “Membership”, C.S. Lewis describes the role of Christians within the body of Christ. One of the central points is the fact that we determine our role in relation to others in the church. The Apostle Paul’s metaphor of the “body” for describing Christian fellowship is powerful in that it defies both collectivism and individualism. An “eye” is distinct from the “heart” but neither the eye nor the heart is any good on its own.

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:16-20, “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.”

Who we are and what we were created for is, in part, revealed when we associate with the body of Christ. In a candid moment (or perhaps a moment of flippancy), I lamented to a friend of mine (the Interim Pastor at my church), that there was no need for my service at this church. He immediately listed off five roles in need of immediate attention, all of which were suited to my gifts and temperament.

There is no easy answer to the question “What does God want me to do?” A good place to start is to toil right where God has placed you---at work, at home and at church---and see what opportunities arise. Secondly, ask your church---friends, elders, pastor. It is powerful when the ear says to the eye, “Although I can hear the waves, I need you to see the ocean.”

On personality, C.S. Lewis writes, “True personality lies ahead… and the key to it does not lie in ourselves. It will not be attained by development from within outwards. It will come to us when we occupy those places in the structure of the eternal cosmos for which we were designed or invented. As a colour first reveals its true quality when placed by an excellent artist in its pre-elected spot between certain others, as a spice reveals its true flavour when inserted just where a good cook wishes among the other ingredients… so we shall then first be true prsons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places. We are marble waiting to be shaped, metal waiting to be run into a mould.” (from “Membership” first read in Oxford on February 10, 1945)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Paddy’s Day

Today is March the 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. The day is celebrated in honour of Saint Patrick, the 4th Century missionary who brought Christianity to the emerald isle and according to legend he expelled all the snakes from Ireland. He also explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish using a shamrock.

Although we had no green beer or Guinness on hand, in honour of this day, we had a bowl of Lucky Charms, read some Irish folktales, drank a mug of green-coloured Kiwi-Raspberry “smoothy” and we listened to some Irish music CDs.

This is a special day in our house because Irish blood courses through our veins. In truth, I am only partially Irish; I have a great-great-grandfather---an Ulsterman---who settled in Canada from the northern part of Ireland and my great-grandmother is the grand-niece of Irish-Canadian Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Everyone has a relative with some claim to fame, and mine is Thomas D’Arcy McGee. He was one of the Fathers of Confederation; in addition to being a politician and founding father of this nation, he was also a poet. He published over 300 poems in his lifetime. Below is an excerpt of a poem he wrote entitled, “St. Patrick’s First Converts” and tells the story of Patrick’s initial contact with Irish natives on his missionary journey:

Upon finding Saint Patrick praying on the shores of Ireland, the Irish natives ask “Where dwells your God?”

The Saint replied, “Oh, nobly born!
Haply encounter’d here this morn;
You ask the only truth to know
That Adam’s children need below;
Your quest is God, like them of old
Who found the gravestone backward roll’d
From where they left the Saviour cold.”

Mildly to tell, the holy man
The story of our faith began---
Of Eve, of Christ, of Calvary,
The baleful and the healing tree;
Of God’s omnipotence and love,
Of sons of earth, now saints above;
Of Peter and the Twelve, of Paul,
And of his own predestined call.

“Not on the sea, not on the shore,
In solemn woods or tempest roar,
Dwelleth the God that we adore.
No! wheresoe’er His cross is raised,
And wheresoe’er His name is praised;
The pure life is His present sign,
The holy heart His favourite shrine;
The old, the poor, the sorrowful,
To them He is most bountiful;
Palace or hovel, land or sea,
God with His servants still will be!”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tolkien galumphs through the tulgey wood of Beowulf criticism

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf (cited in a previous post), he lists dozens of far-reaching, varied and contradicting opinions on the Old English poem. In the midst of this forest of opinions, Tolkien writes that “a view, a decision, a conviction are imperatively needed.” Tolkien then alludes to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem in his effort to sort out the “nonsense” (but not necessarily bad) opinions on Beowulf:

“For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgey wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.”

I am just glad I am not the only one who borrows freely from the tulgey wood of nonsense poetry. For the original poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, see the sidebar link “Why a blog called galumphing?”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

At the Kilns: Learning from C.S. Lewis (I)

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am investing time to learn from the teaching of C.S. Lewis for the course of this year. Over the next few months, I hope to post what I am gleaning from this intellectual and spiritual giant.

At the Kilns: Learning from C.S. Lewis

I recently read “Learning in War-Time” which was a message C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford on October 22 1939. He had been asked to speak on the question whether students should continue with their studies while Great Britain was engaged in an all-encompassing war. He argues, simply, "yes." In the process of his argument on that subject, he makes a comparison to Christians studying, or doing anything, during the ongoing spiritual war.

When thinking about the secular and sacred aspects of life, Christians always end up wrestling with the question C.S. Lewis poses: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?” There are Christians who ask this question of themselves and others. I wrestle with this question sometimes when I invest energy and time into teaching students about the writings of Shakespeare rather than the writings of the Apostle Paul. It is a worthy question to consider, given the fact that everything this side of glory will pass away. However, this sort of question, adds Lewis, “implies that our life can, and ought, to become exclusively and explicitly religious.” In one sense, our lives do become transformed and all-consumed by Christ. But Lewis distinguishes an exclusive divide between sacred and secular. He writes, “Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realised hat one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before, one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.” The reality, Lewis points out, is that we spend most of our time doing the mundane, secular things in life. The solution to this question, then, that Lewis presents is this: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Co 10:31) Lewis goes on to say, “All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not.” This truth can be an encouragement or a sobering rebuke.

Below are some particularly meritous excerpts from the same sermon:

We must do what we were created to do

“The work of Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as the Lord.’ This does not, of course, mean that it is a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow.”

Why we need educated Christians
“A cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now---not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground---would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.”

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

Study history
“Most of all, perhaps, we need an intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has anything magical about it, but we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

“A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times, and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pouts from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

The quotes from C.S. Lewis are taken from “Learning in War-Time” in The Weight of Glory, edited by Walter Hooper (HarperCollins, 2001)

The New Beowulf: Death of a Hero?

“The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf; the Christ-god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame.”
Beowulf, 2007 (director Zemeckis)

The Old English poem, Beowulf, is one of my favourite works of English literature. Last year, in my enthusiasm and excitement for this poem, I rushed out and purchased the DVD of the newly released modern film version entitled, Beowulf and Grendel. To my disappointment, the noble culture and heroic landscape of the poem was translated into a misguided but strong culture that was being eradicated by Christian usurpers. The result of the "Christian impact" (as portrayed in the film) was a replacement of the original, pure culture by disillusionment, cynicism and weakness. The only wise and stable character in the film is a sorcery-practicing witch (where does she fit into the original poem?). Beowulf is portrayed as an arrogant charlatan, who learns (too late) that the true hero of the story is Grendel (a misunderstood cromagnum man) who is trying to avenge the prejudicial and unfounded murder of his father. Huh?

This year, I was more cautious when the Robert Zemeckis’s animated film Beowulf was released on DVD in February. I resolved not to make any rash purchases. Curiosity overwhelmed me, however, and despite the mysterious presence of Angelina Jolie in the film, I rented it.

To my delight, what I found was a dazzling animation, a visually satisfying recreation of the world of Beowulf. To my disappointment, I found another anti-Christian rendering of the poem. Focus on the Family’s movie review site Plugged In, gives a candid review of the positives and negatives of this film version from a Christian perspective. Unfortunately, there are more negatives than positives.

The real poem---the poem I admire---is the earliest major literary work in the English language. Written by an anonymous Christian poet in the 8th century, the work describes a Scandinavian-based myth/legend; the primary subject is the humble Geat hero, Beowulf, and his battling of two monsters and a dragon. Despite the pagan context, the poet infuses a Christian worldview into the story, what Douglas Wilson describes as redeemed “northernness” (Wilson 4). Literary scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien, also underscores the Christian foundation of the poem. His essay, entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” was described by recent Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney as “epoch-making” and “brilliant literary treatment” of the poem (Heaney xi). In this essay, Tolkien rejects the theory that “[Beowulf] is a string of pagan lays edited by monks” or that “it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian” (8). He also rejects the notion that the poem was written by “muddle-headed” and “beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons” (8). Tolkien argues that Beowulf “moves in a northern heroic age imagined by a Christian, and therefore has a noble and gentle quality” (45). Tolkien cites another writer who explains that Beowulf's heroic quality is more distinctly “a Christian knight” heroism than a Greco-Roman mythological heroism (20). Tolkien also compares Beowulf’s continual battle with monsters and foes to Christians battling the “enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten” (eternal Lord); like Beowulf, Christians were (and are) “hemmed in a hostile world” (22).

According to an interview on the DVD bonus content, the co-screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary believe that they are undoing the edits made by supposed monks, monks who wrecked the poem by Christianizing it. In the film, Beowulf laments, “The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf; the Christ-god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame.”

On the contrary, Christ is the ultimate hero, the only true authentic hero in history. Literary heroes face incredible adversaries; Odysseus faces the Cyclops, Beowulf faces Grendel, St. George faces the dragon. The Christ-hero faces man’s greatest adversary---death---and he defeats it. Then Christ promises to battle our enemies in and through us. The screenwriters seemed to miss this central theme: before Christ, the world of Beowulf was an endless cycle of death and defeat. Christ brings true victory and ultimately, true heroism.

The screenwriters’ and director’s efforts to restore Beowulf to its original form by “undoing” the edits by monks is ironic. The only editing that actually occurred in this film adaptation is the edits made to remove the fundamental Christian elements. Another ironic aspect is the confessions of the screenwriters and the director that they hated Beowulf when they had to read it is high school. Who hired these guys? Question number one should have been, do you like the story? Question number two should have been, have you actually read the story?

Avoid the film and read the poem yourself. Students of the poem should be especially wary. As Paul Asay from Plugged In writes, “The film has very little to do with the book… So anyone who uses this film as a sort of CliffsNotes is bound to get all the questions wrong on the semester test.” I recently read Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s New York Times bestseller translation of Beowulf this fall and I highly recommend it.

  • Heaney, Seamus. “Introduction” pp. ix-xxx. Beowulf. Trans. S. Heaney. New York: Norton, 2001.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. pp. 5-48.The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays. Ed. C. Tolkien. London: Harper, 2006.

  • Wilson, Douglas. “North of the World” pp.4-5. Credenda Agenda. Vol. 9 No. 4 Idaho: Community Evangelical Fellowship, 1997.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Speaking of C.S. Lewis...

I recently “confessed” to a friend that each year I find myself reading a couple C. S. Lewis books of one kind or another. I owned up to the fact that I needed to diversify in my reading. However, my friend said that maybe I should sit at the feet of Lewis for a time; learn all that I could from this spiritual giant. He encouraged me to allow Lewis to be my teacher.

I am a product of my culture; therefore, I feel the need to dabble in everything, master nothing. To camp out with one writer for a period of time had never occurred to me. After thinking about this advice, I agreed to take up Lewis as my mentor for this upcoming year. The plan is to immerse myself in the body of his writings. I have no delusions about “mastering” Lewis. I only hope to learn.

Right now, I am reading The Weight of Glory, which is a compilation of Lewis’s sermons and lectures. The thing about Lewis is that he begins writing about an incredibly mind-blowing topic; he then breaks off onto a tangent about another incredibly mind-blowing topic, followed by an incredibly mind-blowing topic to be used as an illustration for the first mind-blowing topic. After I scrape my brains off the ceiling, I will post a few nuggets of wisdom I am learning along the way.

I am also reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the children. This is the second time for Joseph, and the first time for Nate and Katie. My favourite part (and perhaps one of my favourite scenes in all literature) is when Lucy first meets the Faun in the snow with the umbrella and the parcels. It’s magical and mysterious, the quintessential ingredients for good storytelling. Tonight we finished the chapter where Edmund meets the White Witch and he eats the enchanted Turkish Delight. While the three kids sat on the couch covered by a warm, cozy blanket, they ate a sliced up Big Turk chocolate bar---of the un-enchanted variety.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

C. S. Lewis speaks!

I have been a long time disciple of C.S. Lewis. Through the Chronicles of Narnia, I fell in love with literature. Through his scholarly writings, I have grown as a student of literature. Through his Christian writings, I have been sharpened, instructed, convicted and encouraged. Each year I read a couple Lewis books. Over the years, I have longed to hear his voice, the voice of a man I admire and revere. Finally, I have come across a couple BBC recordings of C. S. Lewis. His voice is nothing like I imagined, but, ironically, his voice is exactly the sort of voice a man like him would have!

Click on the link below to go to the BBC web page. There you will find two audio recordings of C. S. Lewis.
Also, listen to or read the BBC interview titled "Anne Atkins on C.S. Lewis" at the bottom of the web page. In the interview, Atkins says, 'Of Mere Christianity, the BBC described to Lewis "the sharp division you produce in your audience: they either regard you as the cat's whiskers, or as beneath contempt."' Atkins then gives Lewis's response: '"The two views you report aren't very illuminating about me perhaps. About my subject matter it is an old story, isn't it? They love or hate."'

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Shake Hands with the Devil

Last night, instead of grading the ever-growing pile of essays and assignments, I watched the film Shake Hands with the Devil. The film is based on Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s autobiographical book Shake Hands with the Devil: The failure of Humanity in Rwanda. It deals with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the United Nations reluctance to intervene. Within the span of a month, close to one million people---men, women and children---were butchered, mostly with machetes.

The film is brilliant. Award winning Canadian actor Roy Dupuis gives a powerful and convincing portrayal of Dallaire. The cinematography is beautifully rendered, depicting the stunning landscape of Rwanda (amazingly, the movie was actually filmed on location in Rwanda using the historical sites of the events portrayed). Although the historical violence was gruesome and barbarous, the violence in the film is subtly depicted but powerfully implied. Unlike The film Hotel Rwanda, which loosely covers the same events, Shake Hands is less graphic. There are, however, some shots of corpses and mutilated bodies in Shake Hands, but the film focuses more on Dallaire’s reactions to the atrocities. The impact of the horrors of the Rwanda crisis is conveyed forcefully by Dupuis. The filmmakers frequently limit the viewers to see firsthand the atrocities; rather we are only permitted to see Dupuis’s reaction to corpses and violence. As a result, the depth of the situation resonates with viewers.

The film raises the question of foreign intervention in domestic affairs. Certainly, UN peacekeeping missions should not “take sides” in a dispute but was there not a mandate to protect lives and actually "keep peace"? While the atrocities were unfolding, the US and other nations refused to use the word “genocide”---had the term been officially accepted, international law demands intervention. Like the Dallaire himself, the film “pulls no punches in his condemnation of top UN officials, expedient Belgian policy makers and senior members of the Clinton administration who chose to do nothing as Dallaire pleaded for reinforcements and revised rules of engagement.”**

Despite the unpleasant and gruesome content, I highly recommend the film. Its relevance is especially poignant in light of recent national debate over Canada’s role in Afghanistan. It also asks the question of legitimate use of force. At one point in the film, a Rwandan woman cries out to Dallaire asking why he didn’t protect the victims of a recent attack: “Why don’t you protect us?! You have guns!” Even more poignant is Dallaire’s use of his personal weapon. He never fires his gun until the end of the film. The reason for the display of force is to protect three goats. A couple of stray dogs were attacking the goats, and in order to protect them, he fires his gun at the attackers. The result is the goats are saved. The implication is this: had Dallaire been permitted to use force against the aggressive instigators of violence (symbolically the dogs), he could have saved the innocent Rwandans (symbolically the goats).

The trouble with pointing fingers is that we are arguing in the realm of “what if…?” If the UN had responded with force, would the genocide have been quelled? Dallaire and the filmakers makes a powerful argument that UN intervention would have prevailed. I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s famous statement: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This was certainly the case in Rwanda.

**From the review of the award winning documentary film, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Why Study Latin...?

Besides being a teacher of English literature and Classical Civilization, I teach Latin to a small---yet keen---group of students. I recently came across a great little article about why we should teach/study Latin. The article is posted on the webpage for the Bradford Academy, a Classical Christian school my brother is starting in North Carolina. Here is the article:

Richard A. LaFleur, in the essay, "The Practical Benefits of Studying Latin" writes: One of the most PRACTICAL benefits of studying Latin for high-schoolers is boosting verbal skills and scores on tests like the SAT; students with two or more years of Latin typically score 140-160 points higher on the SAT than their Latin-less peers. Numerous studies have demonstrated a significant positive correlation between studying Latin and improved scores on a variety of tests and even with college GPA and performance in college English classes.

On purely utilitarian motives we ought to be inclined to study Latin. The following is a table (from illustrating the advantage Latin students have over their peers on the SAT:

1998-2005 Taken from Table 6 in College-Bound Seniors. A Profile of SAT Program Test Takers.

Our goal is to teach students how to learn and to think. Historically, what one subject characterized elementary education prior to the last century? If you read any educational history you’ll recognize the term “Latin Grammar School.” Before we ask why we should teach Latin, perhaps we should ask why was LATIN part of the education of every literate English speaking person up until the 20th century. Why were elementary schools called Latin Schools? Did they know something we don’t?

Listen to Dorothy Sayers: I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50%. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.

Here are the benefits of LATIN in general:

  • Latin opens up new worlds of literature. Latin was the lingua franca of literature in the western world for over 1600 years. Many great scholars, such as Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin, wrote in Latin, not to mention the great body of Enlightenment scientific works. Learning to read Latin opens up the original works to understanding and enjoyment.

  • Learning Latin teaches language learning. Language acquisition is an art and skill that can be acquired. By teaching and learning Latin as a language, children learn the discipline and techniques necessary to acquire other languages in the future.

Here are the benefits of LATIN as we learn how to LEARN

  • Latin builds vocabulary. Over 50 percent of English words (and 90% of words of multiple syllables) are derived from Latin and therefore knowing a few Latin word cuts down on the effort required to learn new vocabulary. For example, the word for SUN is SOL. Knowing that fact children can quickly see the connection in the words solar, solarium, and solstice. In addition, knowing Latin helps understand different shades of meaning and synonyms.

  • Knowledge of Latin improves spelling. Because many English words still carry remnants of their Latin roots in their spelling, it helps that we know DOUBT came from DUBITO, or that DISCIPLINE came from DISCIPULA (student). In each case the silent letter that students may tend to drop in the English is pronounced in the Latin.

  • Familiarity with Latin assists in the appreciation of good literature: Students will appreciate classic books in English because so many of the books of enduring value include Latin quotes, phrases, and classical allusions.

  • Latin aids in cultural awareness. American ideas were not dreamed up out of nowhere in 1776. They have their roots in the medieval and classical world. Students that know the language of that world better appreciate our own heritage. Latin helps students appreciate and connect to our own history (and frankly, it ought to humble the American student as he sees the smallness of our own society compared to the grand scope of Western history). In addition, it helps students appreciate all those Latin mottos and slogans.

  • Latin promotes the discipline of the mind: Learning Latin grammar takes a great deal of careful study and precision. This mental practice is profitable in every field.

So LATIN is one of the best ways to teach students how to think and learn. A classical education teaches Latin as the foundation for language learning itself, for development of thinking skills, and for connecting modern children to the scholars of the past. Latin is for all children and shows significant advantages to those that grapple with the subject.