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Misunderstood Christian Classics

This is the final post in a 4-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.


Reclaiming the Christian Classics

We live in a day when revisionism is the rave in the academy and in our culture generally.  The way to get attention and be mainstream in the secular establishment is to debunk what has been accepted as true for centuries.  Being of conservative Christian conviction, I am always on the periphery in this world of revisionism.  Sometimes I am left wondering, When will I get to have some fun debunking established positions?

The debunking niche that I have carved out for myself is small, but I have claimed it with zest.  I have a flourishing side-career as a defender of Christian classics that the world at large claims to be non-Christian or secular.  I can accurately speak of these as misunderstood Christian classics—Christian classics that are denied their identity as Christian works. To make my rehabilitation projects even more invigorating, I often end up combating Christian colleagues and students who naively accept the mainstream view of a secular culture.

In the Christian guides to the classics that I am publishing with Crossway, three of the first wave of books fall into this venture in reclaiming Christian classics.  First, in the latter stages of my academic career it became increasingly clear to me that the intellectual allegiance and worldview of Shakespeare’s major plays is Christian.   I have not highlighted this in my guides to Macbeth and Hamlet, but it is a template on which I constructed my commentary and that a reader of those guides can detect.  I could even see myself writing a book on “Christian Shakespeare.”

A Case Study

The classic whose denial of Christian standing vexes me most is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  It became obvious to me right at the start of my teaching career that The Scarlet Letter is a Christian classic.  In fact, at the end of Hawthorne’s story, in the celebrated confession scene set on the town scaffold in the next-to-last chapter, Hawthorne springs a surprise ending on us as the book becomes as explicitly Christian as a story can possibly be.  Why do Christian readers not see this?  Because they accept the entrenched secular view that loves to discredit Christianity wherever it can.

Instead of recreating the specifics of my handling of The Scarlet Letter in my guide (though I strongly recommend the purchase and reading of it!), I will use my experience with that book as a case study in how I have gone about reclaiming lost Christian classics for the category to which they belong.  As I reconstruct the history of my involvement with Hawthorne’s classic story, I will be identifying stages through which I pass with my other reclamation projects.

Often the genesis for my eventual reclamation began in a graduate school classroom, where I endured what seemed to me a deliberate attempt to suppress the Christian element in a work of literature.  Often this was part of a larger disparagement of the Christian faith.  Of course I encountered the anti-Christian interpretation of the work in published literary scholarship as well.

Obviously I would not have chafed under the way in which the work was being handled in the classroom if I had not reached a preliminary conviction that the work was Christian in orientation.  Whenever I keep reading scholarship in quest for Christian readings of the misunderstood work, I always encounter an eventual cloud of witnesses who are excellent guides to the Christian element in the work.  I have never been a lone voice in reclaiming Christian classics.  I will also note that when I publish my interpretations of misunderstood Christian classics, I regularly receive correspondence from likeminded scholars.  With my own intuitions reinforced by published scholarship, I typically go back to the text with renewed vigor and find more and more Christian elements in the work.

4 Principles

I will end with four principles based on my own experience that might lift some drooping hands among my readers.  (1) Do not be intimidated by the pronouncements of a non-Christian or secular culture or viewpoint (even if that viewpoint is urged upon you by a fellow Christian).  (2) Operate on the premise that if you search thoroughly enough, you will find published scholarship to confirm you in your interpretation.  (3) If you are sure that your Christian interpretation is supported by the text, keep digging for more and more data to confirm your interpretation.  (4) Share the good news.  Start a debate.  Tell someone off.  Start a book discussion group.

Or, you could write a reader’s guide to the book.


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

 

March 14, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life & Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

10 Reasons Joy Brings Christ to Our Culture

This is a guest post by Greg Forster, a program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. His newest book is Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It.


The Importance of Joy

How can Christians help their neighbors live more like God wants and resist the decay of our culture? One of the most important ways is by helping them encounter the joy of God.

Joy, biblically, is not just a pleasant feeling – not just “good vibrations.” Rather, joy is the explosive change the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, minds, and lives  that transforms who we are and every aspect of how we live. Helping people encounter that would make a huge difference to the role of Christianity in our culture.

Here are ten reasons why:

10. It gets people with their guard down. People are naturally wary of canned gospel presentations, political agendas or “Christian cultural impact” campaigns. They’re not wary of joyful people.

9. It offers an alternative to lust, sloth and gluttony. The joy of God rips people out of their selfish fantasy worlds, and gets them off the couch and doing something meaningful with their lives.

8. It offers an alternative to pride, greed and wrath. The joy of God casts out the fear and guilt that drive people to build fortresses of misery around themselves.

7. It liberates people from worldly enslavement. People who have the joy of God can’t be controlled and manipulated by systems of sex, money, and power.

6. It reveals new possibilities for our lives. The renewing of our minds by the Word and Spirit reveal how the world really works, showing us things we would never have dreamed of on our own.

5. It changes our priorities. You can’t address cultural problems like financial chaos, family breakdown and cutthroat politics unless you have people who care more about doing what’s right than about doing what’s easy or makes us feel good.

4. It makes us responsible. People with the joy of God want to be good stewards of all that comes under their care, and pass on a flourishing world to the next generation.

3. It reconciles Christian cultural influence with religious freedom. You can’t Christianize people with the power of the state ; the only way to genuinely influence culture for Christ is to get people to want what we have.

2. It’s good training for the New Jerusalem. Sharing the joy of God will be the whole basis of our cultural life.

1. It’s the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in us. Why show our own cultural efforts to our neighbors when we can show them God’s?


Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is a program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He also the editor of the group blog Hang Together and a regular contributor to the Gospel Coalition, First Thoughts, and other online resources. Forster is the author of numerous articles and six books, including The Joy of Calvinism and Joy for the World (excerpt).

 

March 11, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life & Doctrine,The Christian Life | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:30 am | 1 Comment »

How to Read a Classic

This is the third in a 4-part series (part 1, part 2) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.


In my previous postings I provided answers to two questions:  What is a classic?  Why should we read the classics?  This posting raises the question of how we should read a classic, and it presupposes as a background what I said in my previous postings.  If a classic is a work that possesses the qualities that I ascribed to it, and if there are good reasons why some of our reading should be reading the classics, then how should we go about our reading of them?

Reverence and Suspicion

My overall point is that we need to strike a balance between reading classics with undue suspicion on the one hand and on the other hand holding them in such reverence that we do not subject them to ordinary standards of analysis and criticism.  I will be talking about reading literary classics, but as I said before, all art forms and most disciplines have their classic texts.

When we know that a piece of literature is a classic (see my first posting on how to recognize a classic when you read one), I believe that we should begin with a vote of confidence for the work.  We know that we are reading a great work.  That being the case, we should open the book with high expectations.  Occasionally we personally will be disappointed by this or that classic, but not often.  The liberal establishment today attempts to instill an automatic bias against classics for their alleged tyranny.  I believe that we need steadfastly to reject that voice.  We can almost depend on it that a classic will give us more truth, wisdom, and beauty than the literature of the contemporary “politically correct” lobby.

Things to Expect

What, specifically, should we expect to find as we open ourselves with a more-than-ordinary receptiveness as we begin to read a classic?  We should expect to be entertained, first of all.  For people who have developed a taste for the classics, the classics will offer more entertainment value than what we find in contemporary pop literature.  Along with that, we should be looking for a display of artistry and a quality that through the ages has been called beauty.  Reading some books of commentary or internet reprints of articles are good allies in uncovering the superior artistry of the classics.

Additionally, we should go to a classic with the assumption that the subject of literature is universal human experience, concretely rendered in such a way that we vicariously relive the experiences that the book places before us.  One of the most demonstrable points of superiority of the classics over popular literature is the depth and multiplicity of human experience that they embody.  The classics touch upon life powerfully at many points (said Victorian Matthew Arnold), and we should read them predisposed to find truthfulness to human experience at every turn.  If we don’t see it, we need to assume that the deficiency lies with us and find a remedy.

Writers of the classics also offer interpretations of the experiences that they embody in their works.  We can count on it that classics will present us with what is commonly called “the great ideas,” and we should allow those ideas to serve as a catalyst to our own thinking.

Wary Readers

All that I have said thus far leans in the direction of expecting the best from a classic.  But not all human experience is edifying to relive vicariously, and ideas can be false as well as true.  One of the great contributions of Francis Schaeffer to our thinking about the classics is his claim that the fact that a work is great literature is no guarantee that it asserts the truth.  So if we should be expectant readers when we read a classic (the drift of my remarks above), we also need to be wary readers.

Another way of saying this is that as Christians we need to be ourselves when we read and assess a classic.  There is only one classic that is without error, and that is the Bible.  It is our standard of truth for weighing the truth claims of a classic.  We need to keep our convictions when we read a classic.

Remember Common Grace

As an addendum to the foregoing, let me say that we should read the classics in an awareness of the doctrine of common grace.  By God’s common grace, every person and culture has some capacity for the true, the good, and the beautiful.  It is a rare classic with which we cannot find a large common ground, even if the worldview and moral vision are partly deficient.  Christians have no good reason to be fearful or automatically suspicious of classics, even when they come from non-Christian cultures (as Homer’s Odyssey, does, for example).


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

 

March 7, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life & Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Why Read the Classics?

This is the second post in a 4-part series (part 1) from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.


The short answer to the question I have posed in my title is to take a second look at the answers that I gave to the question that I raised in my previous posting, namely, “What is a classic?”  If a classic possesses the qualities that people ascribe to them, we know that we want them in our lives.  But of course more needs to be said.

Superior Entertainment

My first defense of the classics is one that may seem surprising:  we should read the classics because they provide superior entertainment. I grant that this is truer for people who have been educated to love the classics and who have developed a taste for them.  I need to add, though, that everyone can develop that taste.  No one is barred from the classics, contrary to false claims about elitism.  For centuries the classics formed the basis of education at every level, starting in grade school.  It was not until the advent of the contemporary decline of culture and a general laziness of mind that has settled on Western societies that the classics have seemed to bar people.  Happily, there are pockets of the evangelical world that have continued to value the classics.

Do I actually find Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens more entertaining than the latest movie or television drama?  I do.  The subject matter that the classics put before us for our contemplation is more entertaining and striking than what popular entertainment generally does.  The surface remoteness of the classics of the past gives them a quality that is itself entertaining, namely, arresting strangeness (a formula that I have stolen from J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”).  And it is not only the story material of the classics that is entertaining:  even more important is the superior artistry and technique and beauty that they display.  Robert Frost’s description of a great poem extends to other genres as well:  a classic is “a performance in words.”  We do often think of a movie or television drama as a great verbal performance, but we do think of the classics that way.

Reflecting the Human Experience

Another virtue of the classics is that at the level of content they do greater justice to the richness and multiplicity of human experience than lesser forms of literature do.  It is a truism that the subject of literature is human experience, presented so vividly that we relive the experiences in our imaginations.  Some experiences are more worthy than others.  Great literature and art probe life at deeper levels than works that are transitory.

Why are most literary works of the contemporary moment so fleeting?  Because they are surface-level portrayals of life only.  Once we get beyond the realistic portrayal of contemporary life that momentarily grabs our attention because we can relate to it, there is nothing more to see in the work.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  By contrast, Homer’s hero Odysseus lives on through the centuries as a model of the ideal family man in whom can see our own experiences and longings.  The classics possess a universality of human experience that literary works rooted in our own milieu often lack.

Hard Work

I have another reason for valuing the classics that will surprise some of my readers.  I value the classics because they are demanding.  They elicit greater attention and thoughtfulness from us than non-classics do.  The classics elicit our best, and this is a mark in their favor.  My students regularly do their best work for me with Shakespeare and Milton, who would certainly rank as demanding authors.  In keeping with what I said earlier about the richness and depth of experience and artistry that the classics provide, there is simply so much more that a reader or student can do with a classic text than with an ordinary one.

A Gateway to the Past

Finally, the classics are our gateway to the past.  They give us what the Victorian apologist for the classics Matthew Arnold called “the best that is known and thought in the world.”  To have contact with the best that has been known and said is elevating.  This does not mean that we always agree with what the classics assert, but they are always a great catalyst to our thinking about life and God.  “We need intimate knowledge of the past,” C. S. Lewis asserted in a famous sermon, adding that “a person who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village.”  Reading the classics of the past allows us to live ‘in many places” of the imagination and intellect.


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

 

February 28, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Life & Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 1 Comment »

What Is a Classic?

This is the first post in a 4-part series from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.


The Concept of a “Classic”

The concept of a classic extends to virtually all spheres of life and is not limited to works of literature and art.  “It’s a classic,” says my wife about a piece of clothing that I am considering purchasing.  “Give the gift of a timeless classic,” says an advertisement for a watch.  “Instant classic,” the ESPN classic sports channel declares magisterially about a recently completely football or basketball game.  On lazy Wednesday evenings in the summer one can saunter to downtown Wheaton, Illinois, and see displays of classic cars.  If the concept of a classic extends this broadly, it hardly deserves the stigma of eliteness that “politically correct” liberals like to pin on literary classics.

What qualities does something possess in order to merit the title classic?  As I turn to an answer, I will be speaking specifically of works of literature, on the understanding that the qualities that I am about to ascribe to a literary classic apply equally to many other areas of life and to the sister arts (visual art and music).

Quality

For starters, a classic is considered by the public at large to be the best in its class, or of the highest quality in a group.  A work of literature that does not measure up to high standards of quality is not in the running to be considered a classic.  This is not to say that we should read only classics, but only that something less than excellent as judged by those who are most expert in a field cannot be considered a classic (though I will note a partial exception below).

Impact

If a classic is as great as I have implied, a related trait that we can ascribe to it is that it impacts us deeply.  We value it because of its effects.  I am fond of the statement of a literary scholar who speaks of how a classic “modifies our very being and makes us feel we are not the same men and women we were when we began it.”

Recognition

Because a classic is widely recognized to be great, it has an important place in the history of a nation or culture or subculture (including the Christian subculture).  A prominent literary scholar writes in an introduction to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that “we speak of a book as a classic when it has gained a place for itself in our culture, and has consequently become a part of our educational experience.”  Classics have a way of becoming part of the shared experience of a whole culture or group. We first encounter many of the classics that we know in school.

Permanence

Additionally, classics have ordinarily stood the test of time.  Many of them come from the distant past.  Part of the thrill that we feel when reading a classic is our awareness that we have joined a very illustrious group of readers in many places and times.  Classics possess permanence.  Of course they could not achieved such durability if they are not capable of being reinterpreted and reapplied to as the years unfold.  Every age sees its own experience in a classic. Classics are, indeed, timeless and always up to date.

C. S. Lewis had an interesting slant on what makes a classic when he said that a classic “is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it.”  Classics are “one of a kind.”

Embracing the Classics

I want to end with some additional thoughts that may make the classics seem a little less intimidating than they sometimes seem.  In addition to the culturally acclaimed classics, it is important that we all have our own private list of classics—books that to us measure up to the qualities I have noted above.  Also, every category of literature has its classics. There are classic children’s stories, fairy tales, limericks, murder mysteries, short poems, hymns, and many other genres.  Finally, the Bible is the greatest classic.   This should lead us to respect the concept of a classic.  In addition, what we know about the concept of literary classic can enhance how we experience the Bible.


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The OdysseyMilton’s Paradise LostShakespeare’s MacbethShakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet LetterDickens’s Great ExpectationsBunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

 

February 21, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 1 Comment »