3 Reasons to Study Latin (for Normal People, Not Language Geeks)

This is a good video.

We homeschool and participate in Classical Conversations, the organization behind this video. Latin is not easy to learn or to teach. I have tried to learn it. I once led a seminar for homeschoolers part of which meant I had to address the question of how one teaches Latin. Fortunately I recruited several people to help me. I still don’t know Latin. But I agree with everything in this video. It’s a good thing to learn Latin and to teach your kids Latin.

If you know someone who is thinking of learning Latin, or adding it to their homeschooling curriculum, or struggling with either learning or teaching Latin, share this video with them.

O’Connor, Dostoevsky, and Christ Pantocrator: A Lecture by Dr. Ralph Wood

I’m reposting this, because it is so good. But also because we live in a society that has become a slave to sentimentality. This is also true of Christianity — sentimentality affects so much and we are so blind. O’Connor hated sentimentality. Ralph Wood speaks to this in the midst of so much else he says. A rich talk indeed.


A truly great lecture…


Cardinal Sarah on the loss of the sacred, transcendence, and the difficulty of knowing God

It is possible that the pastoral care in some parishes, and even the celebration of the Mass, actually prevent parishioners from getting close to God? Is it possible that a significant swath of Catholic culture is designed to keep Catholics from having authentic and life-changing encounters with God within that culture — needing to seek it elsewhere? Could this be one of the reasons so many have left the Church for evangelical Protestantism? For some, absolutely. Is this not why there is a kind of nervous movement among so many Catholics seeking a finer light, something burning brighter than in their local church? {Of course, one has to be careful accepting the excuses given by people who have left the Church.]

Anyway, it seems to me that noisy Masses might harm the faithful’s desires for getting close to God, and encountering the divine transcendence.

Robert Cardinal Sarah seems to offer a pointed critique related to these concerns in his latest book, The Power of Silence. If find his critique fascinating, especially because he approaches this from the topic of silence. Here are four quotes particularly relevant:

The notion of sacredness is abused, particularly in the West. In the countries that claim to be secular, emancipated from religion and from God, there is no longer any connection with the sacred. A certain secularized mentality attempts to be liberated from it. Some theologian assert that Christ, by his Incarnation, put an end to the distinction between sacred and profane. For others, God becomes so close to us that the category of the sacred is consequently outmoded. Thus, some in the Church still have not managed to detach themselves from and entirely horizontal pastoral approach centered on social work and politics. In these assertions or these behaviors, there is a lot of naïveté and perhaps genuine pride. (Sarah 119)

If we do not tremble before the divine transcendence, it is because we are damaged, all the way down to our human nature. (120)

Without radical humility that is expressed in gestures of adoration and in sacred rituals, no friendship with God is possible. (120)

Since the reform of Paul VI, and despite the intention of that great pope, sometimes in the liturgy there is an air of misplaced, noisy familiarity. Under the pretext of seeking to make access to God easy and approachable, some have wanted everything in the liturgy to be immediately intelligible. This egalitarian intention may seem commendable. But in thus reducing the sacred mystery to good ideas, we prevent the faithful from approaching thus true God. (123)

Sarah, Robert, Nicolas Diat, and Michael J. Miller. The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017. Print.

Into Silence with Cardinal Sarah

Robert Cardinal Sarah has been getting some attention lately because of statements he has made regarding the proper celebration of the Mass (I think the controversy is silly and Cardinal Sarah is clearly more wise than his detractors). The cardinal has also just written a book called The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, which I am reading as part of a book group. His first book, God or Nothing, our group read earlier, and both book s are excellent, though very different.

There are so many great quotes from The Power of Silence, but for now I just want to highlight this one:

How can we come to master our own interior silence? The only answer lies in asceticism, self-renunciation, and humility. If man does not mortify himself, if he stays as he is, he remains outside of God. (51)

I am also reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, which I am enjoying (I don’t really get most of the criticisms of this book). But I find the strategies and tactics suggested by Dreher to, basically, sit on top on Cardinal Sarah’s deeper insights, as indicated in the short quote above (but evidenced throughout his book). The cardinal’s quote points to a fundamental and, I believe, profound problem with our world today, and especially with Christianity — both Catholic and Protestant — we are addicted to noise, which is damaging us, and we no longer understand the importance of asceticism, self-renunciation, and humility in fighting that noise. The cardinal’s insights also point to the fact that we think we know what noise is, but we don’t — not at the spiritual level.

In fact, I believe if Christians followed the cardinal’s words seriously, then the kind of place, role, and actions of the Church in the world could take any number of forms, not only Dreher’s form(s), because it’s not really about carving out an alternative society so much as it’s changing one’s heart, will, passions, etc. — the rest will follow, and do so in countless ways.

Sarah, Robert, Nicolas Diat, and Michael J. Miller. The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017. Print.

Sarah, Robert, Nicolas Diat, and Michael J. Miller. God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015. Print.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017. Print.

The Natural Laws and Essential Elements of Catholic Church Architecture

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (credit: Paris Tourist Office)

The following points are taken from Michael S. Rose’s book: Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again

From Chapter One: “The three natural laws of church architecture: or, the minimum you need to know to evaluate the church down the street”

  1. Permanence — a sense that the building will remain and stand against the vagaries of time a taste
  2. Verticality — a sense of the building rising or pointing to Heaven and things transcendent, and leading the thoughts of worshipers in that direction
  3. Iconography — art, statues, icons, stained glass, and other items that express and speak of Christian things, especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass

From Chapter Two: “Our pilgrim goes into the house of the Lord: or, the essential elements of every proper church”

  1. The church beckons to souls from afar
  2. The atrium leads us from the profane to the sacred
  3. The façade tells us of the riches awaiting us inside
  4. The narthex draws us toward the sanctuary
  5. The baptistry reminds us of our entrance into the Church Universal
  6. The nave declares that the Church is the ark of salvation
  7. The pews promote adoration, directing our eyes to the altar
  8. The confessional prepares us to receive the Eucharist
  9. The church’s columns enhance its verticality and permanence
  10. The pulpit is subordinate to the altar
  11. The choir serves the Mass without calling attention to itself
  12. The sacred art teaches and evangelizes us
  13. The stained glass creates a heavenly atmosphere with light
  14. The sanctuary set apart the holiest part of the church
  15. The altar is the focal point of unity, reverence, prayer, and worship
  16. The crucifix tells us of Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice
  17. The tabernacle reminds us that Christ is truly present here

The laws and elements are not presented by the author without an agenda in mind. They are to be used as a list for architects and church renovators, but also as a source of critique of modernist church designs. With this list in mind it is interesting (troubling??) to see how many Catholic churches fail to meet many of these laws and elements. Most of these church buildings were built in the past 50 years or so, and from a more modernist approach — a kind of “spirit of the age” urging towards “relevance” and man-centeredness.

The rest of the book examines examples of  church architecture that deviate from these laws and elements, and the reasons why churches where either altered away from tradition, or built according to modernist standards. Then finally the book speaks to what can be done to rectify the problem.

Personally, I love much of modern architecture. I’m not a modernist, but I appreciate much of what modern architects were trying to do, even in their failures (which were many). Still, what constitutes proper sacred architecture, that is architecture designed around the Eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic Church, seems to me fundamentally in need of something other than the modernist approach.

However, I’m also not a traditionalist in the sense that the “solution” is that we go back in time. We can and should learn a lot from the past, including examples of church architecture, but we must remember we shouldn’t just copy from the past, but create based on principles. It’s tradition for the sake of truth, not tradition for the sake of tradition.

Unlocking the Catholicism of “The Lord of the Rings”

I find this fascinating. We all know Tolkien was a Catholic, and we can all readily pick up on a few Catholic themes in LTR, but I love how deep one can go with that. I also enjoy how much fun Joseph Pearse is having with this talk.

looking to be refashioned…

I just read this yesterday. I think it is marvelous…


48. The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(237) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.(238)

Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself.(239) Rising from the dead(240) He sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, He is continually active in the world that He might lead men to the Church and through it join them to Himself and that He might make them partakers of His glorious life by nourishing them with His own Body and Blood. Therefore the promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation.(241)

Already the final age of the world has come upon us (242) and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed and is already anticipated in some kind of a real way; for the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect. However, until there shall be new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells,(243) the pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing and she herself dwells among creatures who groan and travail in pain until now and await the revelation of the sons of God.(244)

Joined with Christ in the Church and signed with the Holy Spirit “who is the pledge of our inheritance”,(245) truly we are called and we are sons of God(246) but we have not yet appeared with Christ in glory,(247) in which we shall be like to God, since we shall see Him as He is.(248) And therefore “while we are in the body, we are exiled from the Lord (249) and having the first-fruits of the Spirit we groan within ourselves(250) and we desire to be with Christ”‘.(251) By that same charity however, we are urged to live more for Him, who died for us and rose again.(252) We strive therefore to please God in all things(253) and we put on the armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil and resist in the evil day.(254) Since however we know not the day nor the hour, on Our Lord’s advice we must be constantly vigilant so that, having finished the course of our earthly life,(255) we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with Him and to be numbered among the blessed(256) and that we may not be ordered to go into eternal fire(257) like the wicked and slothful servant,(258) into the exterior darkness where “there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth”.(259) For before we reign with Christ in glory, all of us will be made manifest “before the tribunal of Christ, so that each one may receive what he has won through the body, according to his works, whether good or evil”(260) and at the end of the world “they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but those who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment”.(261) Reckoning therefore that “the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us”,(262) strong in faith we look for the “blessed hope and the glorious coming of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”(263) “who will refashion the body of our lowliness, conforming it to the body of His glory(264). and who will come “to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at in all those who have believed”(265).

237 Acts 3, 21.
238 Cf Eph. 1, 1O; Col. 1, 20; 2 3, 10-13.
239 Cf. Jn. 12, 32.
240 cf. Rom. 6, 9.
241 Cf. Phil. 2, 12.
242 Cf 1 Cor. 10. 11.
243 Cf. 2. Pet. 3, 13.
244 Cf. Rom. 8, 19-22.
245 Eph. 1, 14.
246 Cf. 1 Jn. 3, 1.
247 Cf. Col- 3. 4
248 Cf. 1 Jn. 3, 2
249 2 Cor. 5, 6.
250 Cf. Rom. 8, 23.
251 Cf. Phil. 1. 23.
252 Cf. 2 Cor 5, 15.
253 Cf. 2 Cor. 5, 9.
254 Cf.Eph.6, 11-13.
255 Cf. Heb 9, 27.
256 Cf. Mt. 25, 31-46.
257 Cf. Mt. 25, 41.
258 Cf. Mt. 25, 26.
259 Mt. 22, 13 and 25. 30.
260 2 Cor. 5, 10.
261 Jn. 5, 29; Cf. Matt. 25, 46.
262 Ram. 8, 18; cf. 2 Tim. 2, 11-12.
263 Tit. 2, 13.
264 Phil. 3, 21.
265 2 Thess. 1, 10.

Reading Vatican II

When it comes to understanding Catholic theology I am a true neophyte, a certified numskull. FYI. But I’m loving what I’m reading so far.

Well, I’ve begun reading the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps, in a way, I am reading these documents in light of the Year of Faith, which I find a great idea and something I hope brings about genuine and organic renewal—something we all need.

The Second Vatican Council seems to be such an important event of the last century, profoundly influential on so many levels, and still very much alive in some important sense. And it’s importance, especially regarding it ecumenical focus, is relevant for Protestants as well as for Catholics. Along with the documents, which are themselves marvelous (as far as I can tell so far), I find the council a source of interest because of the great individuals who participated both in and after the council. This look at the council by Fr. Robert Barron is fascinating:

Look who was at the council:

A young Ratzinger and Yves Congar at Vatican II
Cardinal Joseph Frings and a young Ratziner at Vatican II

Here’s another take on the significance of the council:

I am curious if there is a difference, generally speaking, in evaluations of the council and it’s impacts by those in Europe and those in the U.S.

I am no scholar, and in many ways I feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the council. I also am looking from the “outside” in that I am not a Catholic—not yet anyway. Maybe what’s so interesting about the council is just how immense and human it was. This was a council in touch with its times and actively transparent (up to a point) in a way unlike previous councils.

The following is a great overview and perspective on the council by Rev. John W. O’Malley:

I don’t know much about Fr. O’Malley, he may be in one of those two “camps” spoken of by Fr. Barron, and it seems he may be more in the concilium camp than the communio camp—for me, at this time, the communio camp stirs my heart more, but I know very little of each. However, his last comment, which was his answer to the question of where is his hope, he says, “In the living God.” That, I think, is really the key.

the symphony of the word

From Verbum Domini:

Scripture tells us that everything that exists does not exist by chance but is willed by God and part of his plan, at whose center is the invitation to partake, in Christ, in the divine life. Creation is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason which orders and directs it; with joy-filled certainty the psalms sing: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps 33:6); and again, “he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth” (Ps 33:9). All reality expresses this mystery: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). Thus sacred Scripture itself invites us to acknowledge the Creator by contemplating his creation (cf. Wis 13:5; Rom 1:19-20). The tradition of Christian thought has developed this key element of the symphony of the word, as when, for example, Saint Bonaventure, who in the great tradition of the Greek Fathers sees all the possibilities of creation present in the Logos, states that “every creature is a word of God, since it proclaims God”. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum synthesized this datum when it stated that “God, who creates and conserves all things by his word (cf. Jn 1:3), provides constant evidence of himself in created realities”.

Pope Benedict XVI writing about the The Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which met in the Vatican from 5-26 October 2008, and had as its theme: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

A Father Takes Up Latin

V0007642EBR A man scatters seeds; representing the Biblical parable of t

Homo doctus in se semper divitias habet.

(A learned man always has wealth within himself.)

My life is littered with failed attempts to learn foreign languages. If there is such a thing as having a “knack” for learning languages I don’t have it. As my wife, kids, and I try to bring Latin more fully into the folds of our homeschooling adventure, I have discovered I am about as adept at learning Latin as a stump─though I think the stump may have me beat. But I am still hopeful, not so much because of what I see in me, but because other ordinary people like me have struggled with learning Latin and have succeeded. And though you should take everything I say with a grain of salt, I do believe three things about learning Latin:

  1. Learning Latin is a struggle, will always be a struggle, but it’s still possible to succeed. Plus it is worth the struggle for a host of reasons, not least of which are the value of doing hard things and the connection one derives with the past.
  2. Success is measured not so much in the mastery of Latin, but of Latin “mastering” you, that is, Latin entering one’s soul, setting down deep roots, and bringing about an ordering of the mind.
  3. The study of Latin is based on memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work.

Remember that famous speech president John F. Kennedy gave in 1962 about going to the moon? In that speech he said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard[.]” I love that. I love the idea of doing hard things. Not only do I dream about difficult adventures, I also dream about climbing mountains, reading thick books all the way through, and changing the world for the better. And of course I want to be like Christ. But in truth I am less inclined to actually do hard things. Hard things take great effort and are fraught with risk. It is so much easier to dream than to do.

Regardless, I have been diving into Latin and truly enjoying it. I am no expert in how to study Latin; I fumble, stumble, and get back up, but it’s really amazing how interesting Latin is. I feel more connected to history and old ideas. I see the roots of English and of all that French I struggled with during my school years. I am relearning valuable grammar lessons that have been buried too long in the recesses of my brain. And I sense the powerful order that Latin exudes. I want to be classically educated. I know I will never have the foundation and depth in Latin and the classics as C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers did, but I have more affinity with Lewis now that I have been scratching the surface of Latin.

And yet, for how much I enjoy Latin, it is also difficult work. I know studying Latin has always been difficult work, but I plead a special case─I am a card carrying member of Generation X, in other words I have trouble with memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work, particularly when it comes to something that is not obviously utilitarian or immediately pleasurable. But I have come to believe that Latin is good for me, and not merely good in the way eating vegetables or getting regular exercise are good. Studying Latin is a training of the mind, which is inseparably tied to character. True education is about formation not information. In other words, to be classically educated is to be molded into the kind of person, with the kind of mind and mental habits, that can appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty. The rigor inherent in studying Latin produces minds that can think well. It also inculcates minds with capacities to express good thoughts well. I do not say this from experience, rather I look to my betters, to those who have drunk deep from the classical well. In a nutshell it’s all there in Tracy Lee Simmons’ book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. He writes:

We recognize classical culture now not only by alabaster images of stony ruins, but also through thick gauze of verbal brilliance. The men whose words and ideas we remember best were citizens of a republic of letters. They had learned to think and speak and write with precision and flair. They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and to say it perfectly. (Simmons, p. 76)

How far I am from this ideal is so sad it’s almost humorous. Again Simmons:

While knowledge of truths may come first in the pecking order, one cannot get at those truths without the knowledge of words. Classical education sought to provide a training in words so as to grant an entrée to those truths. And the training began with Grammar, Usage, and Composition. Notice we say “training” here, not “education.” For education, rightly understood, is launched with training and drill. The educated mind must first know how to do, how to form and build, something. Education is the result; training is the method. Grammar, Usage, and Composition lend the starter sets for constructing that educated mind; they are the bricks and mortar, hammer and nails. But master architects draw the plans, not amateurs. (p. 162)

I now see clearly the poverty of my early education. Perhaps I am a bright guy, but most of the time I’m just hanging on. I know my education is built on a spindly foundation. My poor habits haunt me. My mind is narrow and feels truncated. My monolingual brain lacks the flexibility it should have. But it’s never too late to start, so I have begun.

Fortunately it is not too late for my children to start learning Latin either. As a father I have great responsibilities in fathering, and I have decided (actually my wife and I) to make Latin a central subject in our homeschooling curriculum. I want my children to grow up embracing the wonder of creation. I want them to love what God has made and given to us for our enjoyment. Words and things go together and are inseparable. I firmly believe that language is not merely a pointer to things, not merely a universe of sounds signifying objects, not merely a wrapper around creation. Rather, creation springs out of language. God spoke and the world came into being. It is only through the creative word of the author that a world is constituted. (I am borrowing this idea from Peter Kreeft who got it from J. R. R. Tolkien.) Language both creates and is the door into creation. Adam understood God’s creation and then himself by naming the animals─which required attentiveness and contemplation. Real things are found in words. Language goes to the very beginning, to the origin of things. Wonder of language and wonder of creation go hand in hand. Those who lack linguistic wonder will lack ontological wonder.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said in his Introduction to Metaphysics: “Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things.” (Heidegger, p. 11) I think Heidegger is right. We ought to be careful with language. We ought also to be intentional.

This sounds highfalutin and perhaps it is. But here I am, mediocre student of Latin with big dreams, thinking I will teach my children a language which I do not yet know. As a father I must lead by example. Thus I must commit myself to memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work. Given my natural (fallen) tendencies perhaps prayer should come first. And along with prayer should be humility. But even here I should back up a bit. First things are critical. As C.S. Lewis put it: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” (Lewis, p. 280) Latin is a second thing. In fact, the habits of mind that studying Latin produces are also second things. We do not teach Latin merely for the habits. We teach Latin because the habits of mind help our children to understand creation that much better. Grammar is a window unto the Creator, and through that window we see something of the glory of God and His goodness and His love for us and, of course, the story He is telling. (Remember Friedrich Nietzsche said, “[W]e are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”) We do not teach Latin for its own sake, nor even for the various benefits that come in its wake. We teach Latin so that we can know God and make Him known that much better.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961.

Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. 21 May 2012.

Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann & The Spirit of St. Vladimir’s

Not long ago I stumbled upon an amazing little book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called For the Life of the World. This book has been around (and cherished) for some time, and Fr. Alexander was also well known and loved during his life and since. I, of course, was clueless regarding Fr. Alexander, his writings, and the existence of the Orthodox Church (and the history of Christianity in general), but then I was raised Baptist.

When Fr. Alexander died in 1983, CBS did a 30 minutes special on his life and work. Interestingly, the program is narrated by a young Fr. Thomas Hopko, another notable Orthodox teacher and writer whom I have only recently discovered.

Though I am not Orthodox, I am still moved by the various teachings and especially the individuals of the Orthodox church I stumble across in my journey.

Honor, Dignity, and the Rage of Achilleus

I have been reading through The Iliad of Homer as part of the CiRCE Apprenticeship. This is my first time through the book and I am thoroughly enjoying the reading. Enjoying may not be a strong enough word. At the beginning of the journey we were asked one simple questions: Is Achilleus over-reacting? (I am using the translator Richard Lattimore’s spellings of the names.) What a little question, and yet it has sparked so much discussion. We are still answering it. The following short essay is an exploration, though obliquely, of that question.

Modern man struggles with the rage of Achilleus. We think we understand why he is upset, but after a few books of Homer’s Iliad, and a lot of pages with Achilleus sulking in his anger, our inclinations lean towards a “just get over it already” perspective. Sure, we know Achilleus has been wronged, we know he is mad, we know Agamemnon is a questionable character, but we also see the Achaians getting beat up by the Trojans, and we see Hektor reveling in the glory of his success. How is it that Achilleus will not set aside his rage for the sake of his fellow countrymen? Is not Achilleus over-reacting? Or might it be that what seems clear to us actually distorts how we should understand Achilleus’ rage and his choice to remain angry for such a long time? Can there be some inherent characteristic, some Weltanschuung, of the modern world that hides the true nature of this legendary rage?

Here is the crux of the issue: Achilleus has been publicly insulted but we live in an age that no longer understands insult. In other words, modern man lives and thinks within a social-historical context that does not fathom, and therefor does not value, honor. This is not to say we never act with honor, but it does mean that the structures and institutions that were once so crucial for the establishment of honor and ourselves are now considered impediments. We seek instead the dignity of the individual rather than the honor of the man. We have traded honor for dignity, but more on that later. First let’s look at some evidence that honor has become obsolete. Peter Berger says in The Homeless Mind:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor is revealed very sharply in the inability of most contemporaries to understand insult, which in essence is an assault on honor. In this, at least in America, there is a close parallel between modern consciousness and modern law. Motives of honor have no standing in American law, and legal codes that still admit them, as in some countries of southern Europe, are perceived as archaic. In modern consciousness, as in American law (shaped more than any other by that prime force of modernization which is capitalism), insult in itself is not actionable, is not recognized as a real injury. The insulted party must be able to prove material damage. (p. 84)

In other words, an injury of honor has no real reality. It is merely a matter of one’s feelings and should eventually be dismissed as fundamentally inconsequential. Why modern man should have arrived at such a position is probably too complicated to sort out here, but we can see the historical shift in the concept of man with the birth of modern democracies. In short there has been a shift in consciousness that began more than two hundred years ago (maybe closer to five hundred years ago). We can see it in some of our most important documents. Consider these examples:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, 1776)

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. (Article One of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution, 1789)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […] Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women… (From the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948)

The emphasis is on the human person alone, unencumbered. We see our dignity bound up in the idea of our real selves, that is, the self which is distinct from, and unbound by race, political views, skin color, gender, age, social status, geography, physical condition, sexual orientation, religion, or even actions. According to Berger:

There is an implicit sociology and an implicit anthropology there. The implicit sociology views all biological and historical differentiations among men as either downright unreal or essentially irrelevant. The implicit anthropology locates the real self over and beyond all these differentiations. (p. 89)

Modern civil society is based on this concept of human beings. We have inherent dignity in that we are all equal and have certain, even inalienable, rights. Ironically, this real self is a mystical self, unable to be seen or touched, produced or analyzed. It is one of our age’s most cherished beliefs yet is resides entirely outside the bounds of science.

We can get confused in the distinctions between dignity and honor, for both are goals of moral enterprise. They both require effort to attain, to defend, and protect. And they both achieve their attainment in the individual in relation to other persons. However, dignity, as Berger defines it, begins with the individual alone in the universe, inherently valuable yes, but requires a man find his own self from within himself. Honor, on the other hand, begins with the moral context and social fabric that man is born into, and a man must seek his place and accept his self within that world.

Human dignity is a good thing. As Christians we can affirm the inherent worth of each human being, know that God created each of us unique, placed in us His image, and sent His Son to die for each of us. Christians can also affirm this idea of the mystical self. It is very much like our understanding of the essence of God. We can know each others by what we do and what we look like, but we cannot ever truly know or define the essence of another. However, as moderns we must also realize what we deny and what we lose with each new so-called progressive step forward. Berger notes:

The institutional fabric, whose basic function has always been to provide meaning and stability for the individual, has become incohesive, fragmented and thus progressively deprived of plausibility. The institutions then confront the individual as fluid and unreliable, in the extreme case as unreal. Inevitably, the individual is thrown back upon himself, on his own subjectivity, from which he must dredge up the meaning and the stability that he requires to exist. Precisely because of man’s intrinsic sociality, this is a very unsatisfactory condition. Stable identities (and this also means identities that will be subjectively plausible) can only emerge in reciprocity with stable social contexts (and this means contexts that are structured by stable institutions). Therefore, there is a deep uncertainty about contemporary identity. Put differently, there is a built-in identity crisis in the contemporary situation. (p. 92)

But where does this leave Achilleus? The world of Achilleus is ancient. It is a world where honor ranks high in the social context. When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilleus this was not a blow to his dignity so much as a blow to his honor. Agamemnon publicly insulted Achilleus, and Achilleus became, therefore, not merely indignant but wept in his dishonor. We, who live in a world that prizes dignity but not honor, struggle to understand. We are inclined to say things like, “Just walk away.” “It’s no big deal, there are other women to take from you plundering.” “Think about the others.” “Get over it.” But for Achilleus this insult reverberates with a sound that may be beyond our hearing. Consider the scene where Briseis is taken away from Achilleus:

He led forth from the hut Briseis of the fair cheeks and gave her
to be taken away; and they walked back beside the ships of the Achaians,
and the woman all unwilling went with them still. But Achilleus
weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions
beside the beach of the grey sea looking our on the infinite water.
Many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother:
‘Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
honour at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.’
(Iliad, Book One, trans. Lattimore, lines 346-356)

Notice several things that strike us as odd. He gives up Briseis, but then weeps. Achilleus is a great man and warrior, but to us his weeping seems unmanly. He calls to his mother. Though she is a god, this also seems unmanly. He complains that Zeus should give him honor but instead Zeus has given not even a little. But we would claim his inherent dignity is more important than honor, and that one should not look to another for one’s self-worth. Finally, he complains that he has been dishonored by Agamemnon, who took away Briseis his prize. We think nothing of true personal value, nothing of our character, can be taken by another, and we bristle at the idea of a person being a “prize” of another. But here we have the great Achilleus weeping and complaining to his mother over losing his prize. In the words of a once popular song we might say to this whiny warrior, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” But should we?

What is it that makes a man? In our modern age a man is the product of personal, existential action. But the ancient world was not an existential world. Certainly the individual was important, and certainly people made existential decisions, but men did not seek to discover or to create their identity so much as they sought glory and honor within the prescribed contours of the existing world. Achilleus is not having an existential breakdown in the way we do today. He is not searching for himself. He is not in doubt as to who he is. Rather, Achilleus is raging over a breach in the institutional fabric of reality that defines him. His sociological context, from which he derives his honor, has been torn apart. Modern man tries to preemptively strip away the institutional roles that would define him, but pre-modern man accepts and relies on those roles. Modern man may even make fun of the old soldier pulling out his worn medals, or the civil servant in his uniform, or the wife in her kitchen. More than this, modern man sees in these roles trappings that are detrimental to the process of self-actualization and the nature of identity. Man must throw off the robes of honor that trap him in a self that belongs to another. It is better to live without honor and find one’s true self than play someone else’s game, or worse, society’s game. Berger takes this further:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor may now be seen in a much more comprehensive perspective. The social location of honor lies in a world of relatively intact, stable institutions, a world in which individuals can with subjective certainly attach their identities to the institutional roles that society assigns to them. The disintegration of this world as a result of the forces of modernity has not only made honor an increasingly meaningless notion, but has served as the occasion for a redefinition of identity and its intrinsic dignity apart from and often against the institutional roles through which the individual expresses himself in society. The reciprocity between individual and society, between subjective identity and objective identification through roles, now comes to be experienced as a sort of struggle. Institutions cease to be the “home” of the self; instead they become oppressive realities that distort and estrange the self. (p. 93)

If we live within this worldview then the presuppositions that undergird Achilleus’ actions will be foreign to our minds and his rage will seem grossly misplaced. We will, in short, misunderstand Achilleus.

Tolkien and language

I am reading The Lord of the Rings to my girls when I put them to bed. This reading is mostly for my ten year old. My four year old gets Little House on the Prairie, and the ten year old enjoys that as well. I have to say I love reading Tolkien out loud. His use of language is different than almost any other author I can think of, certainly different than modern authors. 

Here is a wonderful interview from Mars Hill Audio (a.k.a. Ken Meyers) with professor Ralph C. Wood on how J. R. R. Tolkien viewed the use and meaning of human language.


I am particularly struck by their conversation about the roots and deeper meanings of words, and how we tend to disregard such connections today.

>Jacques Ellul: Anarchy and Christianity


I am thus very close to one of the forms of anarchism, and I believe that the anarchist fight is a good one. What separates me, then, from the true anarchist? Apart from the religious problem, which we shall take up again at length, I think that the point of division is as follows. The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society – with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities – is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.

~ Jacques Ellul

Here is the text of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity from Google books.


The link to the book is here.

The Astrologer (was right)


We have an old book called “The Æsop for Children.” In this book is a fable called The Astrologer. I want to present it here and then propose another ending. Here is how it is in the book:

     A man who lived a long time ago believed that he could read the future in the stars. He called himself an Astrologer, and spent his time at night gazing at the sky.
     One evening he was walking along the open road outside the village. His eyes were fixed on the stars. He thought he saw there that the end of the world was at hand, when all at once, down he went into a hole full of mud and water.
     There he stood up to his ears, in the muddy water, and madly clawing at the slippery sides of the hole in his effort to climb out.
     His cries for help soon brought the villagers running. As they pulled him out of the mud, one of them said:
     “You pretend to read the future in the stars, and yet you fail to see what is at your feet! This may teach you to pay more attention to what is right in front of you, and let the future take care of itself.”
     “What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

My alternative ending:

…”What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     The astrologer went home somewhat embarrassed for having fallen into the hole, but not yet convinced by the villagers, for he knew what he had seen in the stars.
     The next day was a great earthquake. The villagers ran from their houses and looked to the sky in fear for the sun had turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
     Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, including the villagers, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from this calamity that has befallen us! For the great day of wrath has come, who can withstand it?”
     Take care of the big things for the little things will be of no consequence.

Christians are often known for believing in some pie-in-the-sky story that gives them both comfort and guilt. This vision is often derided as wishful thinking and used as one of many excuses for not believing in the gospel. Others, many of whom are Christians, emphasize the here-and-now aspect of the kingdom of God (the kingdom of God is within you) and propose that Christians spend more energy looking at the world before them, helping others, feeding the poor, etc. They would deride the pie-in-the-sky idea as merely a means to avoid the world of the here-and-now. The truth being, we are called to help the needy and poor, we are commanded to love our neighbors, but we are also longing for the kingdom still to come. Though the kingdom of God has come in one sense—with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the  spirit of God—we wait still for its final establishment and the corresponding removal of sin from our lives. Our problem, however, is not that we don’t pay more attention to what is right in front of us, and don’t let the future take care of itself. Our problem is that we are too easily rooted in the things of this world; too easily living in fear of what this world might do to us—holes in the ground and all.

In the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians we read, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” This does not mean to disregard the needy and poor, in fact just the opposite. But it does mean that we should be captivated by what God is doing in history, concerned for the future, knowing this world will pass away, and longing for the kingdom come. But we are told differently; the world would have us say it is of the highest importance, its villagers telling us foolishness is to miss the world’s details in favor of the bigger picture. If we listen to the villagers we may never again fall into the hole, but we then might be destroyed when we most need salvation.

educating myself (in a novel way)

I am uneducated. There, I said it.

Sure, I’ve been to school, and I know how to read. I also know a few things, including a lot of trivia. But the more I learn the more I am convinced that I am largely uneducated. I am also convinced that many adults, especially those who have been to college, do not think this way about themselves, but they should. It is a kind of catch-22; the more one knows, the more one doesn’t know. In other words, it takes being educated to realize one isn’t. So, I guess I am both. I could become disheartened, but in fact it is just the opposite. The world of knowledge is before me and that is exciting.

Being a homeschooling parent I am also interested in the concept of a classical education. A classical education includes a lot of reading. If you are looking for some good books to read, and you want to spend several decades reading them, take a look at both of these lists:

Adler’s book list
Professor Cadbury’s book list

I want to read them all.

Now I love books, but I have to confess a problem: I love to buy (or check out) books more than I ever read them. I have stacks and stacks of books. I’ve gotten rid of more books over the years than most people have ever owned or, for some, even held in their hands. I’m not saying this is a good thing. A lot of the books I have are classics. They range all over, but probably most are works of non-fiction, including a lot of philosophy, theology, history, and biography. The fiction is a lot of European and American classics, and mysteries. I also have a fair amount of poetry. Regardless, most of these books sit on their shelves or in their piles having been started several times each but never finished. Novels are the worst for me.

With that in mind I am embarking on a plan. Or, at least, attempting to embark. The plan is not really my own, but I am willing to embrace it and try to make it my own. And like most grand schemes announced by bloggers, mine will likely suffer the usual fate of making it gloriously to sometime next week and then failing due to some minuscule, but entirely “understandable,” problem. Regardless, here is my plan: I will read through the book list proposed by Susan Wise Bauer in chapter five of her book: The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. That chapter is titled: “The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel.”

Here are the books on her list:
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1679)
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1815)
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
Nathaniel Hawthorn, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851)
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Leo Tolstoy, Ann Karenina (1877)
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878)
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Stephen Crane, The Red badge of Courage (1895)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
Alert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1972)
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)
Don Delillo, White Noise (1985)
A. S. Byatt, Possession (1990)

You will notice the books are listed in chronological order of their publication. That is part of Susan Wise Bauer’s strategy. To read in order of publication date is to also read through the order of the history these books are a part of; it is to see just a little more the significance of each novel as they pertain to their time and place. In this way one gets a sense of the novel’s development.

I realize some of you are laughing because you know I will never get through this list, and others are laughing because you are surprised I have not already read each of these several times and even wonder why the list is so short. Hey, I’ve read a couple on the list, and started a few others more than once. Anyway, I am thoroughly excited about tackling such a great list of books. I hope this project will provide some genuine and lasting educational substance to my life.

I figure if I give myself two or three years I should be able to get through the book list without killing myself, but it will still be a difficult push for me. It might even take much longer depending on how much work I want to do with each book, such as note taking and re-reading. Susan Wise Bauer also provides some good advice on reading, a history of the novel, and thoughts pertaining to each of the books. I picked the novel because that’s the kind of book I have the most trouble getting through. Unfortunately I am a rather slow reader, though I am also working on my reading mechanics; my eyes tend to go back over the words I just read (back and forth) which slows me down considerably. I also tend to daydream when I read. In fact it is difficult for me to read more than a couple of sentences before I start making connections with other things and my mind wanders. It is my bane!

So what do you think? Is this something you would do?