What are the Theological Disciplines?: The Christian Academy as University

An intersection in Ostia Antica Doorways of residences, shops, and restaurants open out onto this avenue that leads to the forum of the ancient port of Rome. In the words of Robert Frost, "way leads on to way" guiding us in directions we may not anticipate. (Photograph by R. Warren Johnson)

An intersection in Ostia Antica
Doorways of residences, shops, and restaurants open out onto an avenue that leads to the forum of the ancient port of Rome. In the words of Robert Frost, “way leads on to way” guiding us in directions we may not anticipate. (Photograph by R. Warren Johnson)

As I perused the December 2015 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, two articles caught my eye. The first is a journey through all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, including elements of the background of each composition. Those contexts are significant to an appreciation of these masterpieces. For example, during a sojourn in Heiligenstadt, Austria (on the outskirts of Vienna) Beethoven composed his Second Symphony and he composed “an impassioned letter to his brothers” confessing his despair at his progressive loss of hearing. In that Second Symphony, Jeremy Pound finds a work that is “largely upbeat,” though punctuated with “moments that point towards the growling and fist-thumping composer of Beethoven’s later years” (29).

The other article that intrigued me is an interview with the conductor Semyon Bychkov. Unlike the German composer, I was completely unfamiliar with this maestro. What drew me initially to his story was the note in the introduction to the interview that he was “a product of the rigorous Soviet system” (39). Partly because of his Jewish heritage, but also because he found the environment stifling, Bychkov left the Soviet Union in 1975 (aged 22), prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the monumental changes that have occurred in Eastern Europe since then. What fascinates me about the interview is a pair of statements by Bychkov. The latter of those comments is that “society has a deep inner need for culture and spirituality. That need is always there, because it is inside us” (41). Earlier in the interview, while relating an anecdote concerning the relationship between orchestra and conductor, Bychkov recalled an incident when a musician suggested a change in the treatment of a particular phrase in Brahms’s Third Symphony. In the midst of the performance, Bychkov followed the recommendation for those two bars. “I knew it was right. I saw it on their faces when we played it. I didn’t do it to please them; I did it because it was true. It was convincing and that’s why we did it” (39).

This casual reading reminded me that history, physical maladies, politics, family, culture, music, truth, and spirituality are thoroughly interwoven into one another. We are not atomistic creatures who can be dissected into isolated parts, each of which can then be analyzed to find “the real me.” We are complicated, and often inscrutable, “wholes,” and our identity extends beyond our individual selves to incorporate the communities that we form by our membership. As human beings, we need to be fully integrated with ourselves. The plural forms in that sentence are intentional; in the inimitable words of John Donne, “”No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17, written 1623, published 1624).

If that integration is vital to us as human beings, it should be vital in our labors in the Christian academy. Preparing to conclude this series of reflections, I reviewed my fourteen prior submissions. In those musings (ramblings?) I seem to have been tethered to philosophical concerns: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology in particular. I warned myself that I would do that; in the conclusion of “Chaos or Kosmos in the Classroom?” (August 27, 2015) I claimed that “The various disciplines that constitute the Christian academy intersect most clearly at this foundational level.” I believe that I have substantiated that claim in the thirteen intervening discussions. As I addressed those various topics, I included issues relevant to literature, music, history, physics, economics, sociology, psychology, mathematics, cartography, and geography. Again recalling my initial musings, I declared my aspiration: “My desire is to consider the outlines of some of those intersections, investigating how Christian scholarship informs theology and how theology informs Christian scholarship. If successful, I hope that I will detect a few fingerprints of the Creator.” Hopefully my meanderings through the halls of the Christian academy have begun to satisfy the desire I expressed almost four months ago.

Finally, for now, I feel compelled to raise the question: What are the theological disciplines? Obvious members of that group include hermeneutics, linguistics, and systematic theology; but that list is woefully incomplete. I believe/hope that I have presented a credible case for including literature, music, history, physics, economics, . . . in that category. These disciplines are not subordinate to theology; rather theology depends on them and, at least in the Christian academy, they depend on theology. As a sketch of the synergy I have in mind, theology can assist practitioners of the other disciplines as they seek to comprehend the depth of the questions they are asking while they, in turn, guide theologians in comprehending the breadth of the questions we are asking.

A correlated question is “What is a university?” Is a university a coherent entity, or is it merely a convenient sharing of real estate by an amorphous assemblage of essentially independent scholars? The etymology of the word in the Latin adjective universus, which can be translated “all” or “whole,” suggests that in its origins the university was intended to be an organic unity, with the various components informing one another. If we are to achieve that ideal, as Christian scholars we need to find avenues for collaboration. Perhaps the interrelationships I have outlined in these fifteen weeks offer us a sketch for how such a true “university” might function; theology can offer a forum at which the various trails through the academy converge to form a genuine university.

The opening paragraphs of this entry suggest that theology might not be the only such forum in the Christian academy. Music in particular, and the arts more generally, could fill a similar role. Politics and music are not isolated from one another. Beethoven revoked his symphonic dedication to Napoleon when he realized that the Corsican had become a tyrant; in his pursuit of his craft, Semyon Bychkov had his citizenship revoked on the orders of Soviet officials. Bychkov recognizes the “deep inner need for . . . spirituality” in society and Beethoven composed sacred music; music and theology can collaborate meaningfully and effectively. Similar comments can be made concerning theatre and . . .; but that task would require many more weeks and must be assigned to someone more competent than me.

For now I must conclude by returning to the beginning of this sequence of reflections. The Christian academy is (or should be) a reflection of a unified Ktisis (Creation) and should reveal the imprint of the Creator. When we strive for that ideal, we become Christian scholars living out our sacred calling in the Christian academy, embodying the best of what a university can be.



Scott, Rivers, ed. No Man Is an Island: A Selection from the Prose of John Donne. London: The Folio Society, 1997.

The Intellectual Life Together

My first semester as the director of ETBU’s Honors Program is coming to a close. In my final post for The Intersection, I thought I’d share some of the highlights from this semester as well as my perspective on the role of the Honors Program.

Back in September, the Honors Program held a retreat at Shepherd’s Pasture, a beautiful retreat center in Jefferson, Texas. We spent time playing board games, watching (and obsessing over the details of) the movie Memento, sharing meals, sitting around a campfire, wandering in the woods, and playing basketball and volleyball. We also went into town and took a riverboat tour, where we learned about Jefferson’s past as Texas’s first major city and port. In January, we will visit San Antonio to attend the symphony and to tour the Mission San José.

Two Monday nights each month, my wife, Amanda, and I have met with students to discuss James K. A. Smith’s work Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, in which Smith asserts that the Church can gain valuable insights from major postmodern thinkers Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He believes that these theorists’ demolition of modernist preconceptions actually open up space for the Church to reclaim and extend its Scripture-steeped, liturgical, catholic, and incarnational identity. We have engaged in great conversation about the meanings of modernity and postmodernity, the character of the Church in the present day, and the challenges facing the Church in Western society. Our students necessarily will be grappling with the implications of these issues throughout their lives, and the conversations we’ve had reveal the personal stakes involved for them in these issues.

Each chapter of Smith’s book opens with a summary of a film that he feels provides a good analogy to the theories put forth by the philosopher covered in that chapter. Dr. David Splawn hosted screenings of some of these films in his home and led discussions about them with the honors students. This engagement with the films has helped the students see how these theories have infiltrated the culture.

Each Thursday, Amanda and I have opened our home for honors students to gather and chat in a more informal setting. These coffee hours have been enriched by visits from several faculty members: Rick Johnson, Warren Johnson, Jeph Holloway, Jerry Summers, Scott Bryant, Lynn New, Elizabeth Ponder, Emily Prevost, and Troy White. The students have greatly benefited from hearing professors recount how they entered their fields of specialty, how they approach teaching and research, and how their faith frames their work.

Both the Book Group and the Coffee Hours have been central traditions to the Honors Program over the years. My wife and I have felt strongly that these events should take place in our home, with armchairs and couches, with food and coffee, and with children running around and making noise. We want to show through our hospitality that the intellectual life flourishes when it shapes and is shaped by normal, daily living.

The phrase that best sums up my vision for the Honors Program is, “The intellectual life together.” It’s an amalgamation of titles from two books that have inspired me. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges describes the scholarly vocation in almost mystical language, charging those who are called to it to great focus and determination but with incredibly human balance. He understands that a life of study, which requires a great measure of solitude, nevertheless takes place in the world, among friends, family, and daily labor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins Life Together with a reminder to Christians that a worshipping community is a gift—to gather without fear of violence or persecution to praise the Lord in song and to read His word is a luxury that we often take for granted. As a result, we build up imaginary, “ideal” communities in our minds and grow frustrated with the flesh-and-blood community in front of us that doesn’t seem to measure up. We must rid ourselves of these illusions and participate humbly and fully in worship and service within the community that God has brought us to.

I am thankful to enter and oversee an already vibrant community bound together by traditions. I have loved getting to know these kind, funny, interesting, servant-hearted students who find so much delight in instruction, and I look forward to deepening these relationships through living the intellectual life together.



What Child Is This?: The Intersection of Faith, Learning, and Christmas

Orthodox Icon of the Nativity

Orthodox Icon of the Nativity

When Christmas finally arrives we have been anticipating the day for an entire year. Our experience is profoundly different from that of the people we encounter in the Matthean and Lucan Nativity narratives. In an earlier essay (“What is Really Real?: Ktisis as Ontology,” October 14, 2015) I noted the disjunction between the phenomenology of an infant in an feeding trough and the ontology of a divine invasion of the kosmos. The sovereign Lord of the universe could have imposed his will on a rebellious world in the form of crushing might; instead he brought judgement and salvation through the vulnerability of a baby born to a poor, simple couple. Luke was not alone in recognizing the incongruity of the elements of the Nativity. In a remarkably different (though compatible) account, Matthew reported the incredulity of Joseph and he described the fear and fury of Herod in the audience he granted to the magi.

In an attempt to assuage our enlightened discomfort with such incredible impossibilities, some exegetes have attempted to sweep the miraculous from the biblical texts by explaining that the people we encounter in the Bible lived in a prescientific culture. Living in a “demon-haunted world” (as Carl Sagan described such a primitive worldview), they could accept such indefensible claims as a virgin birth. As we engage the biblical texts, we must be cautious not to fall into this trap, thus demeaning the people we encounter there. Writing in approximately the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), Cicero explained lunar eclipses as the result of the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth and solar eclipses as the result of the Moon blocking the light from the Sun (On Divination 2.6.17); in both instances his answers would satisfy Carl Sagan the astronomer. In the same century Vitruvius explained a method to confirm that a surface is level using a channel of water. After describing the procedure, he conceded that the surface of the water is not actually flat; rather that surface is a segment of a sphere whose center is at the center of the Earth (On Architecture 8.5.3). The world is not flat, and the ancients did not automatically attribute all wonders to the acts of gods or of demons. Cicero and Vitruvius (and, presumably, their readers) were not the simple primitives that we “enlightened” people might imagine them to be.

If we allow science to be the measure of all “genuine” truth and if we, in our ignorance, claim that the ancients were blind to that “obvious” fact, we will never comprehend the profound wonder of the Nativity. Joseph (betrothed husband of Mary) was not the simpleton modern skeptics have imagined him to be. He might not have been equipped to explain eclipses or the spherical shape of the Earth; nevertheless, he comprehended some of the basics of human reproduction. Confronted with the news of Mary’s condition, this “righteous man” who “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” decided “to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19 NIV 1984). Though Joseph could not have provided us with a scientifically accurate account of human conception, he was familiar enough with the process to know that a man was supposed to be involved intimately in the event (and that he was not that man). Even this carpenter residing in first-century Nazareth recognized the impossibility of a virgin birth. A nocturnal encounter with the Angel of the Lord allowed him to believe despite his unbelief. In our most honest moments we confess that we know this mélange of faith and doubt.

Istanbul (Constantinople): Portrait of Mary and Jesus over the Ayia Sophia altar Portrayed with a crown on his head, the child Jesus is recognized as the true King.

Istanbul (formerly Constantinople): Portrait of Mary and Jesus over the Ayia Sophia altar
Portrayed with a crown on his head, the child Jesus is recognized as the true King. (Photograph by R. Warren Johnson)

Herod’s wrath is notorious, but the Slaughter of the Innocents is undocumented outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Possessing such meager evidence, can we trust the veracity of this account? In the late decades of the first century A.D., under the patronage of Emperor Vespasian, Josephus composed a pair of histories intended to make his Jewish nation more comprehensible to a Roman audience. In both Antiquities (16.392-394) and Wars of the Jews (1.550-551) he narrated the tragic fate of a pair of brothers: Alexander and Aristobulus. Though they were sons of Herod, the king perceived them to be political threats. Their mother, Mariamne, was descended from the ruling family that had preceded the reign of Herod; therefore, these brothers had a more authentic royal genealogy than did their father. After an extended court intrigue, Herod had these two sons executed and buried next to their mother, who had herself been executed earlier on the order of Herod, her husband (Antiquities 15.231).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3 NIV 1984).

With their seemingly innocent question, unwittingly the magi had sealed the fate of the infant boys of Bethlehem. Alexander and Aristobulus had learned the destiny of those born with a better claim to the throne than that of Herod. The “one born king of the Jews,” though a child, was an intolerable threat to the one who wielded the weapons of this world. Only Matthew documented the horror that followed what might seem to be a simple inquiry by the visitors from the East, but his account matches what we know of the character of the Roman puppet who would slaughter anyone, including his own sons, whom he perceived to be a threat. Joseph and Mary would need a sturdy faith to endure the challenges ahead of them as parents of the Messiah.

Even a narrative as seemingly preposterous as the Nativity can endure careful scrutiny and critical examination. In fact, the depth of the narrative is revealed most clearly when such inspection is conducted. In the end, however, that analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

. . .

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The babe, the Son of Mary. (Will­iam C. Dix, 1865)

The analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith . . . and worship.


Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996.

What is the Fruit?

As a professor, how do I teach literature? More specifically, who is the audience I am targeting when I teach literature? Is my target audience the same as the students sitting in the classroom? Ideally, I would answer “yes,” but the answer to this question varies more than I’d like it to. Why is this?

Let me return to the topic of my previous two posts: the distinction between the critic and the common reader. Remember that the classification of these two groups is rather artificial; readers fall more onto a spectrum than into categories. The critic is a reader who has cultivated a level of discernment through either her love of specific books or authors, or through her tireless exploration of literature of all types. The critic is also one whose exercise of that discernment has become a regular habit. The common reader also practices discernment, and he sees value in the reading of literature for its ability to delight and/or instruct. The common reader understands how texts can change or grow a reader, and he welcomes such an encounter.

How do these types of readers influence the teaching of literature? Where a student falls on that spectrum of readership (or whether she falls on the spectrum) changes the intended goals of the course and therefore the professor’s strategy in teaching it.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll divide courses into major courses (junior or senior-level courses taken mainly by English majors) and general-education courses (freshman or sophomore-level courses that may be taken by students of any major to fulfill elective requirements). Again, this division is artificial, and taken too seriously, it may lead to unfair assumptions about students that take either type of course. But we’ll use it for a moment.

Major courses should be designed to refine and exercise the student’s discernment so that she can become a critic or, if she already is one, a better critic. They should immerse the student in the delights of the literary works that the course focuses on, through in-depth discussion and close reading, as well as engagement with the critical conversation surrounding the works. Students should consider themselves participants in that conversation. Major courses in literature assume a target audience of common readers and critics and try to enrich these readers’ experience. The assumption is that students and professor more or less share the same view of reading.

The target audience of general-education courses is variable. There may be one or two critics, perhaps a handful of common readers. Quite possibly, though, there are several students in a general-education literature class who would not consider themselves common readers. Keep in mind that the designation “common reader” does not have to do with intellect or ability to read; the term has more to do with a person’s disposition toward reading. An intelligent, thoroughly literate person may not be a common reader because he doesn’t enjoy reading or doesn’t necessarily expect a literary encounter to change him in any way. The assumption underlying this type of course is that the students and professor do not necessarily share the same view of reading.

With this target audience in mind, what should be the literature professor’s goal? It seems to me that the class should be designed to encourage students to become common readers, to find reading a worthwhile pursuit, to adopt an attitude of expectation when picking up a book. The exposure non-English majors to literature (as if to radioactive material) for two or three courses in their college career has long-term effects; my desire would be for those effects to be good.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, though, I cannot make my students into common readers; rather, I must make my course conducive to students becoming such readers. Of central importance is creating a hospitable space for students to engage the texts, a space where students can draw upon their own experiences and feel free to grapple with the issues the texts present without fear of condemnation. A key ingredient to this hospitality is the sharing of delight: the instructive, good-for-you qualities of literature are accessed through the text’s enjoyment. If I want students to tap into the truth, beauty, and goodness to be had within a literary work, I must help the students find the joy in it first.

This approach requires a certain vulnerability from the professor because it prevents him from hiding behind knowledge about the text. It also changes the type of preparation for classes—the critical skill of the expert is used to persuade students of the text’s delightful qualities. The student should come out of a class with a different kind of understanding of the text, one that’s hard to quantify. Rather than being able first and foremost to identify the formal, technical qualities of the work, the student, I hope, would be able to identify with the human behind the text.

To be honest, I don’t know how this approach specifically would change the look of a class, but I know it would look differently from courses I have taught—and taken. I feel certain, though, that the fruit from such a class would be more elusive but much more satisfying.



What Is He?: A Lesson My Son Is Teaching Me

L'Ombre Eiffel "The Eiffel Shadow" (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

L’Ombre Eiffel
“The Eiffel Shadow”
(Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Une ombre s’étend sur Paris, la France, et le monde. A shadow stretches over Paris, France, and the world. Faced with the horrors that have been witnessed in the last week, we find ourselves incapable of expressing adequately the magnitude of the conflicting emotions that threaten to overwhelm us. To say more risks stumbling into vapid cliché. Aware that the path I am taking is fraught with rhetorical peril, I am compelled to continue.

In a scarcely noted statement, The Telegraph (a London newspaper) reported the following detail: “It emerged that terrorists shot at people in wheelchairs at the Bataclan concert hall.” [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11996705/Paris-terror-attacks-as-it-happened-on-Saturday-November-14.html  included in the “Summary of today’s events” at 18:54] Unable to flee in the congestion, chaos, and confusion, these vulnerable people were easy targets. Confronted with bestial inhumanity on a large scale we become emotionally saturated and exhausted. How can we be more appalled and nauseated? Then I glance at my son.

On the morning Micah was born we were told that he had several characteristics of a child with Down syndrome. Eventually diagnostic tests would confirm that preliminary assessment. In those moments on that Friday morning our world changed more than we had expected. Every birth alters the world, particularly for the immediate family. We knew that experience from years earlier when Sarah entered our lives. Micah was different. We knew how to parent a “normal” child, but instantly we were aware that Micah would be a new, different test. Among my first words to him in the delivery room was a whispered message that he would teach me more than I would teach him. He has risen to that challenge.

My dreams and plans for my son died that day. Note well: they were my dreams and plans not Micah’s. Sooner than most fathers, I had to surrender my expectations and allow Micah to be who he is. But, who is he? What is he? His condition is named after a London physician, J. Langdon H. Down, who in 1866 saw his article published in London Hospital Reports [http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/Observations-on-an-ethnic-classification-of-idiots-16179]. The title of that submission, “Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots,” shocks us with its abrupt, archaic language. Unless you steel yourself beforehand for the experience, I do not recommend that you read that document. Much of it inflames even the sturdiest sensibilities. Despite that caution, I draw your attention to the final sentence of Down’s text: “These examples of the result of degeneracy among mankind, appear to me to furnish some arguments in favour of the unity of the human species.” Even here his words conflict with the preferences of our “enlightened” age; nevertheless, Down was affirming the genuine humanity of all ethnic groups and of the patients entrusted to his care.

Parking Sign in Versailles, France "If you take their place, take their handicap."

Parking Sign in Versailles, France
“If you take their place, take their handicap.”

What is the essence of humanity? How do we measure that quality? I have no easy, confident answers to such questions. I suspect that the answers lie somewhere at the intersection of biology, sociology, psychology, medicine, education, . . . and theology. While I have no easy, confident answers to such questions, when I gaze at my son’s face I know that he is as human as I am; he is a true person. If we define perfection according to standards that demand a specific number of chromosomes or a minimal aptitude for learning, he is imperfect. If we refine our standards for perfection even further, I too am imperfect.

If perfection is a prerequisite for being worthy of love, I am doomed. Happily, no such criterion exists; Micah and I are not bereft of hope. In the love that I and my other family members have for him and in the love that he returns abundantly, I know that Micah is genuinely human. Whatever else Genesis 1:27 may be intended to communicate, the triple declaration identifies an essential quality of humanity.

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them (NIV 1984).

Human beings are created “in the image of God.” In some critical, essential way, “male and female” is a reflection of the image of God. Created as “male and female” we are formed in such a manner that we need one another, we need relationships to be fully human. Discovering this truth, I can insist that the academic category known as the “Humanities” is deficient if theology is excluded from the forum.

“It emerged that terrorists shot at people in wheelchairs at the Bataclan concert hall.” Presumably their infirmities were primarily physical rather than intellectual. Despite this distinction, these targets of inhuman fury shared a degree of vulnerability known by Micah. When I glance at my son I weep for the people frozen in place in their wheelchairs unable to find refuge in those terrifying moments. As we search for a path forward, let us remember the genuine humanity of people like Micah and the unnamed casualties in the concert hall. Sometimes the image of God reveals itself in weakness, with twisted limbs, sometimes with genetic anomalies. Parfois l’image de Dieu se révèle en faiblesse, avec des membres tordus, parfois avec des anomalies génétiques.

Dieu créa l’homme à son image,

à l’image de Dieu il le créa;

mâle et femelle il les créa (Gen 1:27 Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible 1988).

Micah and His Family -- Christmas 2010 Micah follows his own path.

Micah and His Family — Christmas 2010
Micah follows his own path.


The Common Reader: Like a Good Neighbor


Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds. Public Domain.

In my previous post, I repeatedly used the phrase “common reader” to distinguish readers who are not critics. This phrase was coined by the eighteenth-century poet, critic, dictionarian, and essayist Samuel Johnson. He first refers to the common reader in his Plan of the Dictionary, in which he explains that common readers need straightforward definitions of terms and examples of a term’s usage in passages of excellent writing. In other words, Johnson wants his dictionary to be accessible to the common reader for education and improvement; he seeks to serve the common reader through the dictionary.

The word common for us in this phrase probably suggests the normal, typical, everyday reader. Johnson, immersed in the milieu of eighteenth-century London, may have had this meaning of the word in mind, but the notion of a “normal” reader does not work in a radically diverse society in which texts of all kinds proliferate. Later in this post, I will suggest a different interpretation of common that I think is more fruitful, but first, is there anything from the character of Johnson’s common reader that could still apply?

Based on Johnson’s use of the phrase in his Lives of the Poets, common readers seem to possess the following characteristics: they desire to have their understanding and experience broadened through reading; common readers expect to gain some benefit from their reading. Common readers have an intuition for what will be delightful in texts, and although that intuition can be refined by critical commentary, it exists prior to any guidance from critics. Finally, common readers are not part of some elite group; they are not some literary in-crowd. In Johnson’s day, the number of people who were literate and had access to literature was growing; thus Johnson’s phrase carries a democratic connotation.

Samuel Johnson has great respect for the common reader, evident in his critical evaluation of poets’ work in his Lives of the Poets. He criticizes poets who neglect the understanding—and therefore pleasure—of the common reader. According to Leopold Damrosch, “The common reader is important…in responding to literature and being changed by it” (41). Johnson believes that a lack of literary knowledge should not bar a reader from enjoying a poem; rather, a poem should not only delight such a reader but also expand that reader’s knowledge. Like the dictionary, then, Johnson argues that a poem should be accessible to the common reader for delight and instruction.

At the same time, though, Johnson does not believe that a poet should cater (or pander) to the common reader. To do so would not enable the reader to grow through her encounter with the poet’s work. The author’s job is to pursue genius, “that power which constitutes a poet…” (420); in turn, the reader discovers new vistas of experience and understanding. I’ve mentioned several times in my posts the significance of the word communication in literature—to make common. The author has insight, perspective—genius, if you will—to make common. If the author’s work is too obscure, that insight cannot be shared; if the author merely gives readers what she thinks they want, she denies her vocation and denies her readers personal growth. This sharing relationship between author and reader is why I love and use Johnson’s phrase. Johnson conceives of an interdependent relationship—a neighborly relationship—between the author and the common reader. The common reader receives the author’s text, seeks to understand it, and leaves herself open to be changed for the better by the text.

But Johnson observes that common readers typically are stuck in a contingent relationship between authors and critics. The latter have more knowledge of how to explain what makes a poem good or have more influence to rally their aesthetic or social cause, and they can use these advantages to foist their artistic agendas onto the reading public. Johnson complains about “the cant of those who judge by principles rather than perception” (435), critics who make judgments only on abstract principles and ignore a work’s “power to delight and truth to nature” which “[a]ny reasonably unprejudiced reader is perfectly well qualified to perceive…” (Damrosch 45). The tyranny of the literary establishment has the power to stunt the growth of artistic achievement by stifling the pleasure naturally experienced by the reading public.

The critic should never ply his trade to intimidate the common reader by performing verbal arabesques that obscure the text or by casting himself as the enlightened possessor of some arcane yet indispensable knowledge, the priest of a gnostic cult. The critic’s role is to facilitate the neighborly relationship between the author and the common reader by clarifying what the author seeks to make common.


Damrosch, Leopold Jr.  The Uses of Johnson’s Criticism.  Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1976. Print.

Johnson, Samuel.  The Lives of the Poets: A Selection.  Ed. Roger Lonsdale.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.  Print.

What Choice Do I Have?: The Intersection of Metaphysics and the Academy

Democritus The 100 Drachma note (pre-Euro Greek currency) depicted the early philosopher Democritus. His ideas contributed to the materialistic view of the kosmos. Democritus taught that the smallest constituents of reality were particles that were indivisible (ATOMOS); thus, he gave "atoms"their name.

The 100 Drachma note (pre-Euro Greek currency) depicted the early philosopher Democritus. His ideas contributed to the materialistic view of the kosmos. Democritus taught that the smallest constituents of reality were particles that were indivisible (ATOMOS); thus, he gave “atoms”their name.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

     And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

     and to walk humbly with your God  (Micah 6:8 NIV 2011).

In the introduction to The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris declared that “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” He stated his “general thesis” in his opening chapter: “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best possible lives” [italics original]. Harris’ pronouncement is bold, dangerous, and self-contradictory.

The boldness is evident in an admission by Harris that at the present state of the scientific craft the hypothesis cannot be confirmed. His declaration about human well-being, events in the world, and states of the human brain is presented as “a very simple premise.” While we have “no answers in practice” [italics original] to the questions that would test the premise, Harris expressed confidence that we can have “answers in principle,” [italics original] and that the principle will eventually become practice. Such confidence has its genesis in the materialistic credo pronounced clearly and concisely by Carl Sagan: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” By his consistent capitalization of “Cosmos” in the book by that name, Sagan elevated the material realm to an ultimate metaphysical status. If matter and energy constitute all of reality, as Harris and Sagan have posited, then Harris’ premise about human well-being must be true.

If Harris is correct, and my well-being is “entirely” dependent upon events in the world and on states of my brain, what choice do I have? In that Cosmos, all that I think is determined “entirely” by external stimuli. My “decision” to provide a meal to a homeless man I encountered and the harsh words spoken in haste and anger to a loved one were neither virtuous nor sinful, they simply were. Events in the Cosmos, inevitably and mechanically, produced states in my brain; those states in my brain then determined my deeds. According to this understanding of the kosmos, all that we are has been determined already by the materialistic forces at work around and through us.

Some have tried to make room for genuine choice by invoking the indeterminacy inherent in quantum mechanics. This effort fails. According to quantum mechanics, while we can predict reliably, in statistical terms, how a collection of particles will respond to the conditions in which they exist, we can neither predict nor control how a particular particle in that collection will respond. Between the probabilistic and materialistic reliability of quantum mechanics and the absolute agnosticism regarding any specific particle, no fissure exists in which genuine choice can germinate.

Is anyone willing to live in the Cosmos that Harris and Sagan have described? They have asked us to ponder their proposals and to rely upon reason rather than faith. If they are correct, their appeals are not genuine choices on their part, they are nothing but inevitable responses to events in the world. Our response to the appeal is, similarly, not a reasoned choice; our reaction is an inevitable response to events in the world, events that include the publication of books by Harris and Sagan. In essential terms, we are scarcely different from the electrons coursing through the semiconductor maze of a computer. Again, is anyone willing to live in the Cosmos that Harris and Sagan have described?

Corinth: The Bema Paul stood trial before a Roman governor at the Bema in Corinth (Acts 18). Is the justice system a reflection of belief in free will?

Corinth: The Bema
In the shadow of the towering Acrocorinth, Paul stood trial before a Roman governor at the Bema in Corinth (Acts 18). Is the justice system a reflection of belief in free will?

Much of human experience appears to answer that question in the negative. Human beings appear to have an irresistible commitment to life in ktisis, Creation. The criminal justice systems operating in nations around the world presume that deterrence and rehabilitation are possible. In the Sagan/Harris Cosmos, the implicit choice inherent in deterrence and rehabilitation is a mirage that vanishes upon closer examination. Similar assessments could be offered concerning marketing, management, government, medicine, education, et cetera. We desire to produce positive change in the world around us; if Sagan and Harris have discovered the essence of reality, even those desires are involuntary responses to external stimuli.

If you cannot live in a manner consistent with your metaphysical premises, perhaps you need to reconsider those premises. If free will is a fiction, if “choice” is illusory, we are merely mechanical components of a complex machine, responding blindly and ignorantly to the materialistic forces acting upon us. Few people are content to live according to such a deterministic, fatalistic metaphysic. We insist that our choices matter, that our decisions have genuine consequences (whether positive or negative). Something there is that doesn’t love blind, irresistible compulsion.

Above I commented that Harris’ pronouncement is bold, dangerous, and self-contradictory. I have addressed the boldness, but why “dangerous and self-contradictory”? This side of my assessment of Harris is established upon the “shoulds” in the thesis. If science can know with perfect confidence what “should” be done, how far can we be from a scientocracy that imposes those conditions upon the population with absolute confidence in the “virtue” of such acts? Conversely, according to Harris and Sagan, such imposition is nothing but a response to “events in the world” and is itself merely another event in the world. The virtue of the “should” contradicts the materialistic premise and is but a vapor that dissipates in the light of analysis.

Isaac Asimov, in the final chapter of I, Robot, imagined a world much like the one that Harris seems to advocate. In Asimov’s world a computer network, The Machine, was made responsible for all planning in all human activities and was empowered to execute those plans without informing the human population; no human consent was involved. Sabotage by a resistance movement, The Society for Humanity, was factored into The Machine’s plans. Even the apparent choices made by the Society had become Harris’ “events in the world” and “states of the human brain,” all part of a grand complex of states and stimuli reduced to data that could be calculated and incorporated into the grand algorithm. Choice had ceased to have any genuine consequences; choice had ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. Only when we turn our backs on Sagan and Harris, only when we unplug The Machine, do our lives become truly “ours.”

The Athenian Academy Depicted in terms of the modern  university in Athens, the reverse of the 100 Drachma note celebrated the traditional Athenian value of learning.

The Athenian Academy
Depicted in terms of the modern university in Athens, the reverse of the 100 Drachma note celebrated the traditional Athenian value of learning.

In the Christian academy, we are committed to educating students for ktisis/Creation life in the Kingdom of God. As we teach our classes and mentor our students, we understand ourselves to be transforming lives. Belief in the genuine transformation that is the implicit goal of any educational endeavor is unfounded if we live in a Sagan/Harris Cosmos. The transformation we seek to accomplish is a matter of the human spirit (in concert with the Holy Spirit), not a blind, inevitable result of “events in the world,” not the machinations of The Machine. A secular academy is not neutral, but is founded (explicitly or implicitly) on a metaphysical foundation that is incompatible with the transformational goal of education. Conversely, as members of the Christian academy we are educators in the fullest, most genuine sense of that calling. We guide students on a path. We do not compel them; rather, we empower them to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV 2011).


Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Doubleday, 1950.

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.

Sharing the Geek-Fest Love

From the perspective of an author, there should be no difference between critics and common readers. If the author desires to communicate her worldview, if she wants to connect with others through the transcendental realities of goodness, truth, and beauty, then whether the reader is a critic or not shouldn’t matter. But why is this the case? The answer lies in the distinguishing characteristics of the two types of reader.

All readers must practice a certain amount of critical judgment—understanding what the writer is trying to communicate demands it. Furthermore, Christian readers must practice discernment as they read, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to them just as much as the author. A critic, however, employs the judgment of the common reader and then some. For what purpose? To help elucidate what the author is trying to communicate. The critic acts as a clarifying agent. Who does he provide this clarification for? The common reader. Critics are servants to readers, facilitating their encounter with the author.

Is this facilitation always needed? No. The lady of the manor is not always in need of her housekeeper, for example. A reader often can make her way through a literary work, connecting meaningfully with the author, without the intervention of a critic. But sometimes a text piques the reader’s imagination and curiosity so much that she wants to delve even deeper into the text; she feels that the author is offering more than what she has gleaned so far and wants to receive it. The (good) critic, then, provides the tools and insights needed to reach those greater depths.


James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915
Public Domain

This allurement of the reader is what should drive criticism, and it should frame the relationship between criticism and literature. Take James Joyce’s Ulysses as an example. People might think that it is fine literature because it demands the interpretive skill of so many scholars and requires so many volumes of explication; therefore, they conclude, good literature must be dense and intimidating. But they’ve got it backwards. The literary landscape is littered with dense, intimidating junk (in legal terms, it’s called an “attractive nuisance,” like a broken refrigerator in a junk yard that a child might want to play in at his peril). The reason why so much has been written in order to “decode” Ulysses is because the work drew people in who then desired to understand more deeply what Joyce is trying to communicate. Yet for all its complexity, the common reader still can take at least some delight in the novel without the aid of scholarly apparatus.

You can see from this discussion of allurement that a literary work can captivate the attention of a common reader to the extent that he becomes a critic. Indeed, the boundary line between the two types of reader is artificial; it might be more appropriate to talk about a continuum of readership that measures how much one “geeks out” over one or more texts. The “professional critic” simply is one who geeks out more frequently, so much so that he devotes his life to such geek-fests, with the hope of getting paid for it somehow.


Thornton Wilder by Carl Van Vechten, 1948
Library of Congress, Public Domain

For example, I geek out over Thornton Wilder, the American playwright and novelist whose most famous work is Our Town. Wilder was enamored with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the follow-up to Ulysses, which far surpasses the latter novel in density and confusion. Wilder spent years poring over FW, annotating it thoroughly, filling notebooks with his speculations about the text, contacting scholars about possible interpretations. A critic even (wrongly) accused Wilder of plagiarizing the novel in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth (which is a fantastic work!).

The overflow of delight that a reader experiences motivates her to serve other readers by playing the role of critic because she wants other readers to experience that delight. Literary criticism, like literature itself, is a way of sharing with others, of communicating. The driving force of both, ultimately, is relationship: loving one’s neighbor, whether that neighbor be a writer or a fellow reader.


Who Are They?: Otherness and the Gospel

Bergama, Turkey (Biblical Pergamum) Early believers in Pergamum were the targets of violence attributed by John to Satan. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Bergama, Turkey (Biblical Pergamum)
Early believers in Pergamum were the targets of violence attributed by John to Satan. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Why would someone decide to become a persecutor? While the question seems simple, the complex behavior we label as persecution probably cannot be explained by a single cause or motive. With a confidence derived from a degree of naiveté, I decided to hazard a guess. According to my hypothesis, “persecutors” would not label themselves with that epithet; rather, they would perceive themselves as attempting to restore good, proper order by punishing social deviants. Only a profoundly troubled person would derive satisfaction from harming others; conversely, protecting society by the aggressive encouragement of conformity could be rationalized as virtuous conduct.

In a comment directed to those who were less literate than they believed themselves to be, Alexander Pope introduced to the English language the riposte that “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread” (An essay on criticism, 1709). Undeterred by Pope’s words, I turned to the work of a behavioral scientist at the University of Bologna, Italy where I found the conclusion that “being intolerant towards other groups (authoritarian aggression) is related to . . . explicit attacks against outgroups”; “authoritarian aggressiveness . . . is characterized by . . . support for the harsh persecution of deviants” (Stefano Passini, 57). Though not a decisive theory of persecution, Passini’s results appear to confirm my amateur hypothesis.

My musings on this matter are neither random nor unmotivated. The Koinē Greek word διώκω (diōkō) was used in the New Testament to communicate the activity we know as “to pursue”; in some instances, this word was employed to describe the more nefarious behavior we characterize as “persecution.” Of the 45 occurrences of διώκω (diōkō) in the New Testament, six uses of this word are both first person and active voice, and all six of these occurrences are attributed to Paul. Two of these six reflect the apostle’s desire to flourish as a disciple (Phil 3:12,14). The other four occurrences are the confessions of a former persecutor (Acts 22:4; 26:11; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13). Saul the Pharisee from Tarsus probably would not have characterized his conduct as persecution; rather, anticipating Passini’s research by two millennia, he would have identified the disciples of Jesus as deviants whose conduct threatened the integrity of the nation of Israel. Only in retrospect did the Apostle Paul comprehend his behavior as “persecution.”

Understood in this way, persecution begins with the perception of others as “Other.” The New Testament records multiple examples of the disciples of Jesus experiencing violent forms of social “correction.” Antipas, a “faithful witness” of Christ suffered the ultimate punishment in Pergamum. In that Asian city the ultimate foe is identified by name: “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Rev 2:13 NIV 1984).

A curious silence concerning the identity of the adversaries prevails in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Ominously, the readers are warned that “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:4 NIV 1984). The small word οὔπω (oupō, “not yet”) transforms a simple declaration into an ill omen. In the following exhortation (Heb 12:5-13), the author offered his readers two related ways to comprehend their suffering. Whether they perceived their situation as the παιδεία (paideia, “discipline”) experienced by a cherished child at the hands of a loving father, or they endured the trials as the παιδεία (paideia, “discipline”) necessary to succeed in the athletic realm, the believers found their attention directed toward the positive implications and consequences of the experience. Nowhere in Hebrews are the immediate malefactors named. Although Jesus suffered at the hands of “sinners” (Heb 12:3), the believers’ conflict is with the abstract power of “sin” (Heb 12:4).

What are the implications of the reticence demonstrated by the author of Hebrews? Why did he never name those who were involved immediately in perpetrating the harm experienced by the believers? Identification of the Other involves the definition of a boundary. Occurrences of boundary imagery are scattered throughout the text of Hebrews. Consistently, when the boundaries are encountered in the rhetoric of Hebrews, the faithful believer is expected to cross the boundary. The final example of boundary imagery in Hebrews occurs in Heb 13:11-14:

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (NIV 1984).

Faithfulness to and identification with Jesus are portrayed as crossing a boundary, going outside the camp. The status of others as Other becomes ambiguous, if not meaningless, when all boundaries are to be crossed.

Asclepion in Bergama, Turkey (Biblical Pergamum) According to the author of Hebrews, faithfulness to and identification with Jesus require a willingness to leave the safety of the camp and to go out into a dangerous world. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Asclepion in Bergama, Turkey (Biblical Pergamum)
According to the author of Hebrews, faithfulness to and identification with Jesus require a willingness to leave the safety of the camp and to go out into a dangerous world. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Debates concerning the purpose of Hebrews persist, and a meaningful treatment of the alternatives is not possible here (though a brief survey is available in my dissertation; 17-20). Nevertheless, one proposal is worth mentioning in this context. In a 1949 lecture, William Manson argued that the purpose of Hebrews was to exhort the congregation to engage themselves fully in the world mission of the gospel (Manson, 24, 160). If Manson is correct, the theodicy of Heb 12:5-13 (in which the congregation’s suffering is explained without reference to the people inflicting that suffering) and the consistent boundary-crossing imagery in Hebrews, in concert with other aspects of the message of this homily, function to promote a willingness to engage with others. Such engagement is difficult (or impossible) when others are perceived as Other; consequently, the author of Hebrews avoids characterizing those people outside the congregation in such a way as to promote the insulation of believers from the world. While faithfulness to the gospel may result in believers being tormented as Other, that status must not be reversed; harming those outside the church because of their Otherness is a contradiction to the gospel.

Why do the disciples of Jesus suffer at the hands of unbelievers? The New Testament offers multiple answers, only one of which has been discussed at length here. How should disciples respond to such abuse? The author of Hebrews insists that we respond in a manner consistent with the imperatives of the gospel, including the command of the Lord: “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 NIV 1984). As believers committed to the gospel, “let us, then, go to him outside the camp.”



Johnson, Richard W. Going Outside the Camp: The Sociological Function of the Levitical Critique in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Vol. 209. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series. London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

Manson, William, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Historical and Theological Reconsideration, The Baird Lecture, 1949. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951.

Passini, Stefano. “Exploring the Multidimensional Facets of Authoritarianism: Authoritarian Aggression and Social Dominance Orientation.” Swiss Journal of Psychology 67 (1), 2008, 51–60.

Survey of Christian Literary Theory I

In this post, I’d like to survey some books that have been influential to my thoughts about Christianity and literature.

A work that I have referred to in previous posts that initiated my inquiry into Christian literary interpretation is Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, a treatise he wrote for students of the Scriptures that provides “a way of discovering those things which are to be understood, and a way of teaching what we have learned” (Augustine 7). There are two major ideas from On Christian Doctrine that have influenced me. First is Augustine’s division of the subject matter of the Scriptures (and indeed of objects in the world) into two categories: things and signs. Things are further divided into things to be used and things to be enjoyed: “Those things which are to be enjoyed make us blessed. Those things which are to be used help and, as it were, sustain us as we move toward blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed,” namely, the Trinity (9).

The second major idea is Augustine’s metaphor of plundering of the Egyptians:

Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use….In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labor, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. (75)

I have found Augustine’s metaphor troubling: we disregard the integrity of the authors when we “plunder” from them, and we distance ourselves too much from the world as witnesses of the Lord Jesus by taking only what specifically edifies us and running away. Augustine’s work inspired my exploration of Christian literary theory, of putting the Christian perspective in conversation with literary perspectives that may not be overtly friendly to faith.

Foundational to my exploration of how Christianity relates to contemporary literary theory is Luke Ferretter’s book, Towards a Christian Literary Theory. His thesis is that, even though contemporary literary theories deny the existence of God, fruitful conversation about literature can take place between them and the Christian perspective. The possibility for this conversation lies in the fact that atheistic literary theories still demand an articulation of faith from those who ascribe to them: “Every positive system of thought at some point involves an act of faith, a decision simply to commit oneself to something that cannot be proved. Even nihilism is based on such a decision” (Ferretter 2). Putting critical theory in conversation with Christianity is worthwhile because every act of literary criticism rests upon the critic’s worldview, such as Christianity. Ferretter asserts, “[I]t is reasonable to imagine a critical discourse whose interpretations and judgements [sic] derive from [Christian theology] or from principles consistent with it” (3).

Ferretter begins these conversations in the body chapters of the book, devoting each chapter to a major critical approach: deconstruction, Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and hermeneutic theory. In each chapter, he shows where the critical theory and Christian theology meet and diverge.

Alan Jacobs’s A Theology of Reading develops an ethics of reading from a Christian perspective. His work differs from Ferretter’s in that he tries to avoid a theoretical approach: “I might say…that I am ‘Against Theory’ in the sense made familiar to literary scholars by the essay of that name by Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels. For Knapp and Michaels, theory—defined as ‘the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general’—is impossible insofar as it claims to be above, or separate from, or not implicated in, the practices it seeks to ‘govern’” (Jacobs 2).

Jacobs describes his project as one of developing “practical wisdom” when reading: he seeks “[t]o read with intelligent charity,” where charity may be defined as the love “because of and in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the author and guarantor of love” (1). His discussion of how charitable reading the voices of a number of participants both historical and contemporary, including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and others. Jacobs also weaves into his discussion demonstrations of charitable reading of works by Shakespeare, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and others. These demonstrations are an invaluable addition to his already rich and inspiring discussion. I admire Jacobs’s emphasis on Christian literary analysis as a thoroughly warm, human act.