Where Are We?: Mapping Our Christian Location in the Academy

Cram's Map of Athens, Greece (1898) Maps can tell stories. This map of Athens provides a glimpse into the history of modern Athens. As the twentieth century approached, the Greek capital was a relatively small city. As the twentieth century ended, Athens had become a sprawling metropolis. (This map in in the public domain.)

Cram’s Map of Athens, Greece (1898)
Maps can tell stories. This map of Athens provides a glimpse into the history of modern Athens. As the twentieth century approached, the Greek capital was a relatively small city. As the twentieth century ended, Athens had become a sprawling metropolis. (This map in in the public domain.)

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by maps. On my electronic devices I have access to maps of various types and functions. When time permits, I indulge my fascination and wander around the myriad images that cartographers have provided for us.

On a recent virtual expedition I came across a map generated by the United States Census Bureau that displays data on the average commute time by state for workers aged 16 and older. From 2009 to 2013 Dakotans (North and South) enjoyed the shortest trips to work (16.9 minutes) while residents of Maryland endured the longest odysseys (32.0 minutes); the average Texan spent 25.0 minutes in transit from home to work.

A series of maps on the website of the National Geographic Society portrays the ethnic distribution of the national population, with more detailed data for selected cities. The colorful patchwork images of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York demonstrate the degree of ethnic segregation in those most populous American cities.

Through the United States Geological Survey I was able to access a topographical map of a portion of Miller County, Arkansas. The contours displayed there represent the gentle hills where my grandmother was born over a century ago. Narrow blue lines on that map depict the streams that powered the sawmill that provided income to my forebears as they scratched a simple existence from the soil of the postbellum South.

As different as these cartographic products are, they share a common characteristic; each of these maps constitutes a graphic portrayal of objectively verifiable information. Each of the curves and colors represents cold numerical data: travel time, population density, elevation above sea level. Not all truths are so rigid; some “facts” cannot be reduced to latitudes and longitudes.

On the walls of my office I have reproductions of four antique maps that purport to represent the then known world. Curiously, each image is centered on the same location: Jerusalem. The most distinctive of these portrayals dates from 1585 and depicts the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa as three leaves of clover, joined at Jerusalem (Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the Americas hover around the perimeter of this map). The caption, in German, describes the image as a portrayal of the entire world in the shape of a cloverleaf, the symbol of Hannover (“beloved homeland” of the cartographer, Heinrich Bünting). While an apologist for Bünting might argue that the Eurasian and African landmasses are joined in the small region that includes Jerusalem, such a defense would misrepresent the truth being portrayed. The configuration of the continents is intended to emphasize the importance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, kosmos-shattering events that transpired in Jerusalem.

The Psalter Map is less subtle about the significance of its Jerusalem-centric perspective. Published in 1265, probably in or near London, in a collection of the Psalms, the map portrays the world as a circle centered on Jerusalem. Reigning over the circle of the Earth is Christ, holding an orb in his left hand and offering a priestly blessing with his right hand as he is worshiped by a pair of angels.

Are these antique maps “true” or “accurate”? The answer to that question is dependent upon how the words “true” and “accurate” are being employed. To decide the answer to this question, and to determine how “truth” and “accuracy” are being used, we must determine for what purpose the maps were produced. Neither Bünting’s product nor the Psalter Map would function as a useful basis for a navigation system that exploited the signals from the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites, but neither was intended to do so. The hands and minds behind these two maps intended to communicate a message, and they have done so admirably. These images are both true and accurate.

Though, as far as we know, he did not include a cartographic illustration, Paul provided a “map” directing our attention to our beloved homeland.

Philippi: Form and Acropolis Paul declared to the Christian residents of this Roman colony that their true citizenship was not in Rome, but was in the Kingdom of God. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Philippi: Forum and Acropolis
Paul declared to the Christian residents of this Roman colony that their true citizenship was not in Rome, but was in the Kingdom of God. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20–21 NIV 1984).

This “map” communicated a message to the Christian residents of the Roman colony of Philippi. The believers’ world was centered not on the imperial capital (Rome) and its artificial “lord” (the emperor), but on the divine throne room where the true Lord reigns and from which he will return to vanquish all evil in the kosmos, thus restoring ktisis to its intended state.

Though the cartographers that produced the ethnic distribution maps described above would probably disagree, their depictions of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York are not entirely different from the work of Bünting nor that of the artist behind the Psalter map. The ethnic distribution maps of these urban areas possess a positive aesthetic quality that stands in tension with the reality of racial segregation in these metropolitan areas. These maps were not intended as cold, rational presentations of objectively verifiable facts. The accompanying article explicates the maps as tools to comprehend the ethnic tensions that bedevil these cities. Like their antique cousins, these maps constitute a message that is both accurate and truthful and that is an expression of an implicit ethic. Similarly, the maps of travel times and of elevation contours are implanted with implications for our stewardship of ktisis; the simple facts are not the whole story, nor are they the most important part of the story.

As scholars and educators in the Christian academy, we are seeking to communicate truth accurately. Even in our most rational, “objective” labors, we transmit information and meaning. When meaning makes an appearance on the stage, an entry that is inevitable, we depart from the ideal expressed by Dragnet’s Joe Friday (“All we want are the facts, ma’am”), and we engage in a discourse focused on values. The interaction of faith and scholarship is not merely possible, such dialogue is inescapable. As practitioners of Christian scholarship, we have both the privilege and the responsibility to communicate clearly the facts and the values that are integral to our profession.

RWJ

Monkeying with Literature

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e5/White_chicken_egg.jpg/320px-White_chicken_egg.jpg

This is your brain.
(Photo by Ren West, Wikimedia Commons)

In my final semester of undergraduate study, I took a class called “The Brain and Literature.” I found this class torturous because of its strong scientific bent. We had to peruse numerous articles dealing with neuroscience and psychology. The class was heavy on brain and light on literature. At the end of this arduous course, our professor offered us the conclusion, based on these neurological studies of the effects of reading literature on the brain, that the first and foremost purpose of reading literature is…to have fun.

Huh?

Perhaps it was having to endure this class that made me resistant to the conclusion that literature’s primary function is enjoyment. Perhaps it was the need to have my major—and eventually my career—taken seriously. Am I really going to invest time, energy, and money into the neurological equivalent of a barrel of monkeys? Whatever the motivation, I was determined that literature had a more lofty purpose than tomfoolery and merrymaking.

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This is your brain on literature.(“Chimpanzee Vocalizing” by dsg-photo.com, Wikimedia Commons)

Eleven years later, here I am, after having read one abstruse and ponderous article after another in which the scholar dresses up a good point about a literary work with so many complicated clauses and unnecessary political, philosophical, or religious convolutions. I feel as if we’ve pulled the monkeys out of the barrel and clothed them in tweed jackets, spectacles, and pipes.

The thing is, I’ve always thought reading and interpreting literature—or any art, really—is fun (well, maybe not during my dissertation—okay, yes, then too). I remember teaching a class on Flannery O’Connor once during my doctoral program, while my professor observed; at one point in the discussion my professor wanted to join the conversation and asked if she could “play too.” When a class is going well, “play” is exactly what it feels like. Not that everyone involved isn’t working hard—we’re analyzing, listening, critiquing, questioning—it’s just that the work is accompanied by delight.

Maybe my bristling at the idea that literature is fun stemmed from my not understanding the significance of that fun. At the risk of sprucing up the monkey, I offer this observation of Jacques Maritain’s: “Art teaches men the delectations [pleasures, delights, enjoyments] of the spirit, and because it is itself sensible and adapted to their nature, it can best lead them to what is nobler than itself” (75-6). Literature and the other arts are fun because they meet people where they’re at and hint at even greater delight.

Maritain continues, “[F]rom very far, and unconsciously, [art] prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the saints), whose spiritual delectation exceeds all delectation, and which seems to be the end of all the operations of men” (76). The arts provide delight, and in apprehending that delight, we somehow know it’s incomplete and that there is greater delight to be had. As a result, we are prompted to seek communion with God. Lewis’s discussion of his search for Joy echoes this notion: “[A]ll images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?’” (220).

Of course, art is not a foolproof sign pointing to Someone Greater. Lewis and Maritain admit the risk of idolatry in the enjoyment of art, not only of the artwork itself but also of the many false gods lurking in the fallen world and possibly in the minds of the author and reader. Perhaps these misperceptions of literature’s delight have brought about the convoluted writing about literature that can turn the chocolate-cake experience of reading a novel into a bunch of wilted broccoli.

At the university I taught at previously, I had a conversation one morning with my department chair. After we bemoaned once again American society’s general lack of regard for the humanities, he mentioned to me that he was adopting a strategy of teaching the texts he enjoyed the most, maybe even assigning the specific passage(s) of a work in which he found the most delight, in hopes that they would elicit greater enthusiasm from his students, most of whom are non-English majors.

What a novel idea! (Pun intended.) If we want students to take literature more seriously, why don’t we show them how much fun there is in doing so? Especially in freshman or sophomore-level, general education classes, perhaps the more we can proffer literature’s delightful qualities and demonstrate how its good-for-you qualities derive from that delight, the more students will see the value of literature and its ability to propel us on our search for the spiritual good of relationship with God.

zb

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. San Diego: Harcourt, 1955. Print.

Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. Print.

When is That Day?: Encountering Sabbath

Icon of John the Theologian Painted by a monk on the island of Patmos, this icon portrays the Apostle John, and identifies him as the author of the fourth Gospel. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Icon of John the Theologian
Painted by a monk on the island of Patmos, this icon portrays the Apostle John, and identifies him as the author of the fourth Gospel. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

The identity of the author of the fourth Gospel of the New Testament canon is conspicuously obscure. Among the disciples in the upper room, in an honored location among those present, was one identified only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 NIV 1984). In the closing lines of the Gospel, this same person is revealed as the source of the testimony being recorded in the book known as “John” (John 21:24). If the traditional conclusion is accurate, this beloved disciple was John, brother of James and son of Zebedee. He was a fisherman in a family enterprise that was sufficiently successful to have access to a boat and to employ workers (Mark 1:19-20). If the beloved disciple is “the other disciple” (John 18:15-16), he was known to the household of the high priest.

Assuming this reconstruction to be correct, how did a Galilean fisherman with personal connections in Jerusalem become an exquisite story-teller? We will probably never have an answer to that question. Perhaps the hours and days of mending the fishing tackle and maintaining the boat provided the necessary opportunity for John to share tales with James, with their father, and with the hired laborers. Whoever he was, and however he honed his craft, the disciple whom Jesus loved was, indeed, a superb narrator.

As explained in the text of the Gospel, what we possess in this document includes an account of a sequence of “signs” intended to guide us to a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). Narrative art is evident in the accounts of each of these signs, two of which share a particular temporal quality.

Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus encountered a man who had been infirm for thirty-eight years. After the account of the healing (118 words), John commented, in an almost nonchalant manner, “The day on which this took place was a Sabbath” (John 5:9b NIV 1984). The subsequent conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities is a result of Jesus’ perceived violation of the Sabbath. On a subsequent visit to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The report of the gift of sight (199 words) is followed by another seemingly offhand comment: “Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath” (John 9:14 NIV 1984). As before, a conflict erupts, now between Jesus and some prominent Pharisees, over Jesus’ neglect of the official Sabbath traditions.

The narratives share a focus on the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders concerning appropriate Sabbath behavior; however, John’s chronological information is introduced in a distinctive manner. Similar accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) inform the reader of the Sabbath context of events from the outset of the encounters. By withholding this information until the critical moment when Jesus’ opponents enter the fray, John places greater emphasis on this detail. What significance could this temporal marker possess beyond the issue of proper Sabbath observance?

John demonstrated a similar deftness elsewhere in his Gospel. In his account of the events in the upper room on the night Jesus was arrested, immediately after revealing Judas’ intent to betray his teacher and reporting the departure of the imminent traitor, John informed the reader concerning the conditions under which Judas’ exit occurred: “And it was night”  (John 13:30b NIV 1984). The meal Jesus had shared with his companions could not have commenced before sunset; therefore, as chronology the note is unnecessary. John was interested in more than the darkness that had settled upon the city that evening; John wanted the reader to notice the darkness that had settled upon the heart of this troubled disciple.

Genesis 2:2 And he sabbathed on the seventh day.

Genesis 2:2
And he sabbathed on the seventh day.

Returning our attention to the two healings mentioned above, the two postponed Sabbath notices serve to draw the reader’s attention to the Sabbath character of the healings themselves. The Sabbath was patterned on the Creation narrative, in which God rested on the seventh day. Six times in that Creation narrative the reader is informed that evening and morning have transpired, and the relevant day is counted. No such notice is present at the conclusion of the seventh/Sabbath day. The Creation Sabbath was a day in which God enjoyed his Creation, celebrating his relationship with the man and the woman in particular. The lack of a concluding notice for that celebration suggests that God’s desire was that the relational character of Sabbath never cease. Sin by the man and the woman frustrated that desire.

Rome: San Pietro in Vincoli Reliquary containing chains that, according to church tradition, once bound Peter. Not all chains that bind us are formed from metal.

Rome: San Pietro in Vincoli
Reliquary containing chains that, according to church tradition, once bound Peter. Not all chains that bind us are crafted of metal. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

With their impaired condition, neither the paralyzed man nor the man blind from birth was deemed eligible to draw near to God within the precincts of the temple. By healing these two men, Jesus brought Sabbath to them; physical restoration was accompanied by a restored access to the holy presence. In both instances “that day” was a Sabbath on which the healed man encountered the presence of God. Would John have expected his readers to recognize and comprehend this subtlety? Though the details cannot be provided here, John’s reports of declarations by Jesus during the Feat of Tabernacles (John 7:37-38 and 8:12) indicate that John expected his readers to appreciate allusions to Jewish traditions and rituals.

We were formed by the Creator as beings who appreciate narrative art. Much of what we learn about God in the Bible is presented in narrative form. As children we learn most effectively through stories; even as adults, if we will permit them to do so, stories can inform and transform us. Often the task of biblical exegesis is inseparable from the charge to hear the stories being told and to evaluate our lives and relationships from the perspective of those narratives. Here theologians find themselves sharing common ground with historians and with scholars devoted to the comprehension and appreciation of literature. Boundaries between the disciplines in the Christian academy are porous. To the academic who exclaims “Good fences make good neighbors,” we must respond, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”).

RWJ

Does Wendy Know Your Name?

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“Bluegrass Gathering at Coffee Shop!”
Amanda Coolidge (CC license)

It was Sunday. I was grumpy from having to wrestle my two-year-old son throughout Mass, and after lunch, my wife offered me the chance to go out somewhere and read, ostensibly to give me time to myself.

We haven’t lived in Marshall very long; I haven’t figured out where to go when I need to relax by myself with a book. I drove downtown to the two coffee shops I was familiar with—neither is open on a Sunday. So I decided to go to Wendy’s.

Why Wendy’s? The last time I had been there to pick up food, I noticed that there were some nice sitting areas consisting of some stuffed chairs around a fireplace in a slate wall. Plus the customer service at this shop has been particularly courteous. I went and got a large cookie (heated up) and an iced tea and then sat down with my book.

I told my students about this experience yesterday, and they laughed. “You went to read at Wendy’s?” Had I heard someone else tell this story, I would have laughed as well. Wendy’s is fast food. It’s brightly colored, uncomfortable, plastic furniture. It’s loud talkers and fussy kids and distracting music. It’s definitely not where you go to read except in an emergency, like when your car breaks down and you need to wait for someone to pick you up.

Okay, there was one woman who was talking very loudly on her phone, but otherwise the environment was welcoming; it was a space that you would want to stay in for longer than it takes to eat a burger and fries.

Wendy’s is not the only fast-food restaurant I’ve seen gussying up its interior, making it inviting and inhabitable. The redesigning of McDonald’s restaurants into “McCafés” is another example. Panera, which is slightly classier fast food, also provides such a space—it was my favorite place to go to grade papers when I lived in Longview (a colleague of mine spent hours there, writing his dissertation), and it is a popular spot to study for students. Of course all of these restaurants are borrowing from or responding to the success of Starbucks, the ultimate in corporately generated, suburban hang-outs.

But the inspiration behind the environments of all these restaurants is Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place”: “In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places ‘host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’” (Project for Public Spaces). Third places are local, neutral, and egalitarian environments. The people who frequent a third place most likely are from the community surrounding it. They are not obligated to be there for any reason; they’re there because they want to be, and this shared desire to be in this space puts everybody on the same level—nobody can pull rank in a third place (“Third Place”).

The theory of third places is that people need a sense of belonging as an individual within a community without being defined (merely) by their familial or work roles. The suburban, commuter lifestyle predominant in America often does not provide that feeling of belonging; third places offer an antidote to modern isolation. Although these spaces are neutral, they understandably become locations where people can discuss important life matters—religion, politics, art—because they essentially are spaces of leisure.

During my years at the University of Florida, I spent much of my free time in a third space that profoundly influenced me, both as a person and as a scholar: the Christian Study Center of Gainesville. I would attend the lectures and reading groups offered by the Study Center, but I would also hang out for hours in its coffee shop, Pascal’s, working on homework or conversing with friends. For a few semesters, I even held office hours there. My closest friendships were forged there. Since leaving Gainesville, I have longed for another space like the Study Center.

The longing for third places is shared by a number of people. Some stores intentionally market themselves as third places; Main Street Coffee House in Hallsville is an example. According to the owners, “Hallsville has been our family’s home for almost 10 years. We raised both our boys here. As our adopted community began to grow and thrive we realized the need for a safe-haven to gather and ‘hang out’, a neighborhood front porch so to speak.” The Dionisio family saw the need for a third place in their community, and they provided one.

So what about corporate chains, like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Starbucks? I think they are borrowing the trappings of third places to capitalize on people’s longing for community. We should be aware of how large, impersonal institutions use the illusion of belonging to promote their product (a great discussion of this is in Brett and Kate McKay’s essay, “Communities vs. Networks”). Coffee and cookies and overstuffed chairs do not a community make—on their own.

On the other hand, the atmospheres of these restaurants are changing in a way that people in the local community could take advantage of them as third places. Even though the brand might be a nationwide corporation, the individual restaurants often are owned by local franchisers, who might recognize their community’s need for a third space, like the Dionisio family. We should be aware of how our desire to belong may be exploited, but we also can be intentional in making a space a third place. The point of a third place’s neutrality is that the people who inhabit it are what matter.

My Sunday afternoon at Wendy’s reminded me of my desire for meaningful community, but it also showed me new ways to be flexible and intentional about using space for that community. So don’t be surprised if I invite you to chat over a Frosty.

zb

What is Really Real?: Ktisis as Ontology

Athens Sunset Gravity explains the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. What explains gravity?

Athens Sunset
Gravity explains the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. What explains gravity? (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

One critical quality of a valid scientific theory is that the theory predicts accurately and reliably the results of new experiments. If ten thousand coins are tossed, the expected result would be approximately 5,000 “heads” and 5,000 “tails.” If you select randomly ten thousand locations on the surface of the Moon, and you then determine if the Earth can be viewed from each lunar location, a result comparable to that from the coin-toss is obtained: 5,000 “Yes” and 5,000 “No.” The ability of the coin-toss to reproduce reliably the results of the lunar “experiment” is neither remarkable nor unique; rolling ten thousand dice and recording the fraction of the rolls with an outcome of three or less versus the fraction of rolls yielding four or greater would produce the same result. The coins and the dice can “predict” the outcome of the lunar test, but we recognize readily that the coins and dice have no fundamental connection to the results of the lunar observations.

The issue identified in this trivial example can be described as a distinction between phenomenology and ontology. The observed phenomena (lunar observations, tossed coins, rolled dice) have no essential relationship to one another; the coincidence of the results provides no insight into the underlying reality being studied. At the level of ontology, we want to comprehend why the Earth can be viewed from only half of the lunar surface and we recognize that coins and dice are curiosities, not explanations. In a valid scientific theory we require that the theoretical explanation reflects what is “really” happening in the phenomenon being observed, not merely that the theory provide accurate predictions.

As noted above, the Moon/coins/dice example is frivolous; the history of science records multiple examples that are nontrivial. One (now archaic) chemical theory explained the phenomenon of combustion in terms of the release of phlogiston. Although this theory was able to account for numerous experimental observations, anomalous results and the discovery of the element oxygen led eventually to the recognition that phlogiston was a fiction. A similar tale could be told of the “luminiferous aether.”

Attempts to comprehend gravity constitute another example of the distinction between the phenomenological and the ontological. Famously, Sir Isaac Newton formulated a theory of gravity that explained the phenomenon in terms of action at a distance, with a magnitude that decreased proportionally with the square of the distance between two objects. Equipped with this tool, investigators were able to explain (or predict?) the flight of projectiles, the path of the Moon around the Earth, the orbits of planets, and scores of other observations. Troubled by the concept of action at a distance, Albert Einstein formulated his General Theory of Relativity. According to Einstein, material objects distort space-time in their vicinity, and these distortions account for what we perceive as the force of gravity. Observation of the bending of light around the Sun confirmed Einstein’s work, and relegated Newton’s theory to the status of a useful approximation that fails to comprehend the true nature of reality.

Recently, quantum mechanics, the astonishing theory that prompted the invention of the sophisticated electronics upon which we now depend (and many other developments), has been confronted by a renewed similar trial. A 21 May 2015 article in the journal Nature (vol. 521), “What is Really Real?: A Wave of Experiments is Probing the Root of Quantum Weirdness,” reports growing challenges to the commonly accepted understanding of quantum phenomena. Are subatomic particles not true “particles” but extended waves (the prevailing orthodoxy)? Or, is the Schrödinger Equation (the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics) merely a useful tool for predicting experimental results, but one that fails to account for the true nature of nature? As of now this conflict is unresolved.

The “discoverers” of phlogiston and Sir Isaac Newton believed incorrectly that they had uncovered the essential nature of the phenomena they were observing; proponents of the standard theory of quantum mechanics may discover that they are in the same situation. Though such revolutions are difficult to imagine, the now prevalent explanations of combustion and gravity might be incorrect; such scientific revolutions are usually difficult to imagine until they become obvious. (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, discussed this aspect of the philosophy and history of science.) As finite beings we must remain cognizant of our limited comprehension.

If the kosmos, the material realm in which we exist, is subject to such uncertainty and ambiguity, we should not be surprised that a similar situation prevails within ktisis, the Creation in which we live. Are our lives comprehended by the materialistic kosmos that we observe with our anatomical senses? Or do our lives interact with the ktisis in a way that reflects and reveals the immanent presence of the Creator? The author of Hebrews was addressing a congregation in a precarious situation. Raw, brute power was being exercised against them, and that force was readily apparent, but the pastor who composed this homily urged the congregation to look beyond the kosmos and to perceive the ktisis in which believers’ security resides. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1 NIV 1984).

In exile on the island of Patmos, John was vulnerable to the brutish power of Rome, a force he viewed as a “beast from the sea” (Rev 13:1ff.). All sensible people in Roman Asia acknowledged and complied with Roman might. John dissented. After communicating to the members of the seven churches that he was aware of the crises confronting them, the risen Christ summoned John to the heavenly throne room where he witnessed the incomprehensible and incomparable majesty and might of the true King (Revelation 4).

Corinth: Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar In the Roman colony of Corinth, Augustus was revered as a being with divine status and power.

Corinth: Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar
In the Roman colony of Corinth, Augustus was revered as a being with divine status and power. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Antique Icon of Jesus Christ In this icon, Jesus Christ is portrayed as PANTOKRATOR THEOS (Almighty God) (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Antique Icon of Jesus Christ
In this icon, Jesus Christ is portrayed as PANTOKRATOR THEOS (Almighty God) who is Lord over all earthly powers. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

With his seal on an edict, Augustus Caesar disrupted the lives of the population of Judea and Galilee (Luke 2:1-3). A simple carpenter and the pregnant woman to whom he was betrothed were compelled to make an uncomfortable journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When the child was born, a band of shepherds discovered that Caesar’s power was, in fact, a meager mockery of God’s dominion. The heavenly host they beheld (Luke 2:13) was an army of angels. (The word στρατιά [stratia], usually translated “host,” is the common Greek word for “army.”) One angel had terrified them; now the sky was filled with a multitude of these mighty soldiers of heaven. The shepherds were witnessing a divine invasion of the kosmos, and the invading force manifested itself in the form of an infant in an animal’s feeding trough. Only the eyes of faith could perceive the ontology in the phenomenology of the infant Jesus.

The history of science cautions us to remain conscious of the fact that our explanations of the nature of reality are incomplete and tentative. Addressing the believers in Corinth, Paul stated that “we know in part and we prophesy in part . . .Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:9, 12 NIV 1984). Whether we understand ourselves to be focused on kosmos or ktisis, we do well to remember humbly that we dwell in a borderland where the two intersect and interact. Life in the Christian academy will leave us pondering perpetually about what is really real.

RWJ

Poverty of Mind

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/99/AlbertBierstadt-Sunrise_in_the_Sierras_1872.jpg/320px-AlbertBierstadt-Sunrise_in_the_Sierras_1872.jpg

Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I once heard that “education is learning how much you don’t know.” That notion was proven for me as I finished up my dissertation: Look how many more articles and books I could read, I thought. I felt the expertise I had gained through the project was a frontier drawn between the knowledge I had traversed and settled and the vast expanse of knowledge left to explore.

I’d like to say that gazing out on that wide vista of unacquired knowledge humbled me, but it would be more accurate to say that it intimidated me. Humility rests on security—the humble person knows who he is and how he relates to others and to God. Humility leaves us open and teachable. In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen refers to this openness as “poverty of mind”:

Poverty of mind as a spiritual attitude is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life. The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us. (75)

Nouwen is careful to stress that poverty of mind does not mean the rejection of learning new things or seeking answers to problems (77); rather, it changes a person’s motivation for pursuing wisdom. A person who practices poverty of mind listens to others and desires to serve them; he doesn’t aspire to be the Answer Man who has it all together.

Intimidation, on the other hand, stems from fear. The intimidated person does not know how to function in the world around him and so seeks protection. He feels that he must give structure and meaning to the world by himself, for himself. Therefore, even though intimidation might motivate the pursuit of knowledge, it causes the person to be closed to true learning and growth.

The intimidated person embraces Francis Bacon’s maxim that “knowledge is power” because he feels powerless. The humble person, however, embraces the truth that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18—see complete verse); as a result, he can “[t]rust in the Lord with all of [his] heart and lean not on [his] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).

So I was more intimidated than humble at the conclusion of my doctoral program, and that intimidation followed me into my career. Intimidation distorts reality, as does all sin. I found myself cloaking the intimidation I felt with the appearance of knowledgeability. Donned in this armor of knowledgeability, I entered the classroom. But intimidation reproduces itself, like all sin. As a result, my approach to teaching employed intimidation as a motivator for students to learn—muy unhealthy.

I have talked with a number of colleagues over the years who have struggled, at least for a season, with the feeling of imposture: somehow we unqualified fools managed to deceive excellent, qualified, credentialed professionals to get into our graduate programs, to pass our dissertations, to be hired as professors, etc. I believe this “charlatan syndrome” stems from a spirit of intimidation endemic to higher education. And, as I mentioned above, the syndrome is contagious: we can easily pass it on to our students.

Higher education, however, is a product of our society, which glorifies information as it turns Bacon’s maxim into a mantra. We are told to “arm ourselves” with information against society’s ills—disease, violence, prejudice. In other words, our culture embraces information out of fear. As with economic poverty, poverty of mind is something to avoid at all costs; having all the answers will protect us. We idolize the acquisition of knowledge, not realizing it will keep us as secure as an inanimate statue of a cow.

Please don’t misunderstand me: in response to “knowledge is power,” I am not arguing that “ignorance is bliss.” Information is a helpful tool, knowledge can help us to solve problems, and Scripture tells us that wisdom “is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 3:15). We should “dare to know,” as Horace writes. But we should be mindful of the spirit with which we pursue knowledge—are we humble seekers, inquiring with a poverty of mind, or are we intimidated seekers, blockading ourselves with knowledge, stockpiling power?

The vista of unacquired knowledge is one of possibility, and as we go beyond our frontier of expertise, the Lord goes before us and behind us. As Jesus reminds us, our heavenly Father knows what we need (cf. Mt. 6:32)—and he knows what we need to know!

 

zb

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out. 1975. London: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

What is the Price? What is it Worth?: Axiology and “Babylonian” Economics

Ostia: Mosaic of the Navicularii Carthaginienses The ship owners (navicularii) prospered from Roman commerce, but were denounced in John's Apocalypse.

Ostia: Mosaic of the Navicularii Carthaginienses
The ship owners (navicularii) prospered from Roman commerce, but were denounced in John’s Apocalypse. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

The metropolis of Rome encompasses an abundance of historical and cultural treasures; most of us could identify several and many of us could name dozens. Often relegated to the margins of such discussions is the city’s ancient port: Ostia. Ships large enough to traverse the Mediterranean safely had difficulty navigating their way up the Tiber River to the heart of the city; consequently, the port community of Ostia grew up near the mouth of the Tiber. There goods were unloaded and stored in warehouses until they were transported upriver in smaller craft to satisfy the demands of the capital city’s population.

Rome’s appetite was voracious. Petronius, a Roman author who was prominent during the reign of Emperor Nero (and, therefore, who was active during the time that many of the New Testament documents were being composed), offered the following comment:

The conquering Roman now held the whole world, sea and land and the course of sun and moon. But he was not satisfied. Now the waters were stirred and troubled by his loaded ships; if there were any hidden bay beyond, or any land that promised a yield of yellow gold, that place was Rome’s enemy, fate stood ready for the sorrows of war, and the quest for wealth went on” (Petronius, Satyricon 119.1-7 [Loeb Classical Library]).

Ostia: Elephant Mosaic Elephants were imported for exhibition in parades and for sport in the arena. Their tusks were valued for ivory ornamentation.

Ostia: Elephant Mosaic
Elephants were imported for exhibition in parades and for sport in the arena. Their tusks were valued for ivory ornamentation. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

For Rome, the rest of the world existed to satisfy Roman passions and the people, fields, forests, and seas of those distant lands were to be exploited for the benefit of Roman comfort and amusement. Value was defined in terms of Roman desires and the costs of satiation were irrelevant. Mosaic floors in Ostia depict this commerce, including the trade in exotic animals destined for slaughter as entertainment in the arena.

The assessment offered by Petronius seems to resonate with another critique of the Roman economy, as perceived by an early Christian dwelling in exile on the island of Patmos:

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:

‘Woe! Woe, O great city,

O Babylon, city of power!

In one hour your doom has come!’

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men (Rev 18:9–13 (NIV 1984)).

Referring to the imperial capital in poetic terms as “Babylon,” John anticipated the day when God would judge the society that refused to recognize the true value of Creation and that considered human beings formed in the image of the Creator as objects to be exploited.

Standing amidst the ruins of Ostia we are compelled to ask ourselves a probing question: To what extent do we engage in such “Babylonian” economics? To what extent do we embody Oscar Wilde’s taunt that “Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing” (The Picture of Dorian Gray)? There on Patmos, recording the apocalyptic vision, John insisted that disciples of Jesus Christ have an obligation to attend to the value of all things, with particular emphasis on “bodies and souls of men” (Rev 18:13). This challenge is most obvious in the context of the study of marketing and management, but no corner of the Christian academy can segregate itself from the necessity to consider the value of Creation.

Why do we do what we do? Is profit the only motive in business? Are power and control the primary concerns in politics? Why do we teach theatre, music, literature, science, . . . and theology? Are nursing and education merely occupations with good employment prospects? Are students consumers and customers, or are they people precious to their Creator, beings formed in the image of God whose guidance has been entrusted to us? I pray that I always view Christian higher education as vocation first and occupation second (or lower). As a Christian educator, I am an agent in service to the Creator, entrusted with the privilege of participating in guiding young men and women along a path. That journey will, hopefully, result in them becoming the people the Creator desires them to be: people who recognize and acknowledge the value of everything. Amidst the ruins of Ostia, I must ask myself why I do what I do.

RWJ

Seeking the Kingdom in New Territories

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Jesus admonishes his hearers not to worry about quotidian cares, such as clothing and food, because our Father in heaven knows what we need and will take care of us. On the other hand, he urges us to pursue the Father’s kingdom and his righteousness. Indeed, in the Lord’s Prayer we ask first for the Lord’s kingdom to come and his will to be done prior to asking for our daily bread.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine of Hippo divides the things of the world into two categories—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” (9). Augustine identifies one thing to be enjoyed: “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a single Trinity” (10). As we set our eyes on the kingdom and thirst for the Lord’s righteousness, we move closer to the Trinity, like a wayfarer on his journey home (9). Worrying about daily needs sidetracks us from our pursuit, which requires us to rely on the Lord at every step.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/Louis_Marcoussis_Personnage_%C3%A9crivant_c1931.jpg/173px-Louis_Marcoussis_Personnage_%C3%A9crivant_c1931.jpg

Louis Marcoussis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When we read literature, is it possible to seek the Father’s kingdom and his righteousness? As I’ve discussed in a previous post, when we pick up and read a literary work, we enter a world created by the author. This created world is an articulation of the author’s unique perception of the real world. Like each person we come into contact with in our day-to-day lives, the author is shaped through her interactions with the real world, for example, through her membership in various communities—familial, racial, national, religious, political, etc. She is also shaped by fortune and the fallen world. She is also shaped by God. The created world of an author’s text thus is not separate from the real world; it is an extension of the real world as well as of the author. The reader, then, enters this created world, this space that is very personal to the author, even as her perceptions are refracted through character, plot, and setting.

Two challenges seem to impede the reader’s pursuit of kingdom and righteousness through reading. First, the textual world is set, like plaster in a mold. The real world is constantly changing, and we know as followers of the Lord that we can be ministers of reconciliation within the world, facilitating Jesus’ project of redemption. How can we bring the kingdom into a world that no longer changes? Secondly, our engagement with the textual world as readers seems largely passive. Whereas, in the real world, we can interact with people and show love through service, we cannot do anything in the bound world of the text. Do these challenges thus preclude seeking out the kingdom through literature?

To answer the first challenge, I have to adjust our concept of the author’s created world. True, the reader enters the created world by reading the text, but where does he enter that world? In his mind. The author establishes a world in her text and invites the reader into it; when the reader enters, the world becomes malleable again because it unfolds within his mind. This transfer is the true outcome of communication—to make common: through reading, the textual world becomes territory shared by both author and reader. And this world, as the reader shines his attention upon it, exhibits new facets, like a gemstone. As a result, the textual world “changes,” even as the text is static. The reader’s search for the kingdom of God continues through the terrain of the textual world.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_112.jpg/256px-Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_112.jpg

Paul Cézanne [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The transfer of the textual world into the mind of the reader then offers a response to the second challenge. Just as the reader’s attention changes the terrain of the textual world, so also the textual world becomes part of the reader’s perception of the real world. The author is not the only one shaped by the real world; the reader is also shaped by it, and the author’s text is part of that reality. How the reader will then seek the Father’s kingdom as he continues on his pilgrimage through the real world is shaped by his reading of the author’s text.

The regions that the kingdom of God can infiltrate expand with the proliferation of texts and of readers. This expansion necessitates further communication: writing, reading, talking, listening. Why not stop communicating so that the territory would be smaller and the kingdom would come faster? But that’s not how God created this world. The abundance of communication reflects the beautiful intricacy of the Creator’s design. The exceedingly complex bonds we form with one another by trying to make ourselves known and understood through texts reflect the unsearchable depths of the Father’s love for us and act as an imperfect, temporal sign of the infinite, perpetual knowledge and enjoyment of the Persons of the Trinity for one another.

In other words, our constant production of texts is not a characteristic of the fall. We are made to be communicative beings. We make our way in the world by sharing. When we seek the Father’s kingdom through reading literature, we understand that our sharing has a specific goal. Reading and writing are vehicles that help us on our homeward journey towards our Blessed Destination.

 

ZB

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997. Print.

Why Do I Like Monet, Mozart and McCartney?: Aesthetics and Ktisis

Delphi: Apollo Hymn Inscription Music was a key element of ancient Greek religion. First performed between 138 BCE and 128 BCE, this inscribed hymn to Apollo includes notations for the melody between the lines of the text.

Delphi: Apollo Hymn Inscription (first performed between 138 BCE and 128 BCE)
Music was a key element of ancient Greek religion. Between the lines of the text this inscribed hymn to Apollo includes notations for the melody . (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

What is on your playlist? On my phone I have a selection of my favorite music; it includes performances and compositions by Eric Clapton, Dave Brubeck, Waylon Jennings, Mozart, the monks of the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos, Vince Guaraldi, Handel, and many others (including the four lads from Liverpool). Why do I like all this music? The short but incomplete answer to that question is that I find beauty in them. That answer is incomplete because it begs the question, “What is beauty?” Although any answer to that question will be at least partially subjective, students of aesthetics have discovered that our sense of beauty is not purely idiosyncratic; our aesthetic sense appears to provide a bond that is a common heritage of humanity.

In the October 2015 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Marcus du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of New College, Oxford) discusses the relationship between music and mathematics. What we find appealing in music corresponds to mathematical constructs in remarkable ways. The elements of the Fibonacci Sequence are integral to the rhythm of Indian music and are evident in the works of Bartók and of Debussy. Olivier Messiaen composed a piece (Île de Feu 2) whose chromatic structure corresponds to the symmetry of an eleven-dimensional object (the Mathieu group M12). Although its definition may be elusive, “beauty” is real; perhaps “beauty” resides in the vicinity of the number eight!

As suggested by Du Sautoy and Messiaen, one element of beauty is symmetry. In a work dedicated to the reigning emperor, Augustus Caesar, Vitruvius identified symmetry as one of the fundamental principles of architecture (On Architecture 1.2.1). According to Vitruvius, beauty in architecture is present “when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of symmetry” (On Architecture 1.3.2; Oxford University Press, 1914). A perceived correspondence between the symmetries of the human body and the appropriate symmetries of a temple (On Architecture 3.1) is reflected in Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawing known as “Vitruvian Man.”

An interest in symmetry has infiltrated the scientific wing of the academy. In a study published in 2008, British researchers determined that people find more symmetric bodies to be more attractive (“Fluctuating Asymmetry and Preferences for Sex-Typical Bodily Characteristics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 5, no. 35 [Sep 2, 2008], pp. 12938-12943). If “attractiveness” is deemed too subjective to establish the fundamental character of symmetry, a moment in the history of particle physics relieves such concerns. In 1962, after examining the properties of a set of nine particles exhibiting SU(3) symmetry, Murray Gell-Mann predicted the existence of a tenth particle, needed to confirm/complete the symmetry of the set. “Shortly thereafter the new particle, called the Ω-, was indeed discovered” (Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 99).

Istanbul (Constantinople): Ayia Sophia mosaic Since the early 14th century, worshipers have admired the beauty of the Byzantine mosaic of Jesus Christ in the Ayia Sophia cathedral. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Istanbul (Constantinople): Ayia Sophia mosaic
Since the early 14th century, worshipers have admired the beauty of the Byzantine mosaic of Jesus Christ in the Ayia Sophia cathedral. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Does the pervasiveness of symmetry demonstrate an underlying metaphysical quality of the kosmos? The scientists who established the connection between symmetry and the perception of attractiveness offered a mundane evolutionary explanation for their results. They suggested that a more symmetrical body is perceived (unconsciously) to be more healthy and, therefore, the more symmetrical potential mate is identified as a more desirable partner in terms of the number and survival potential of offspring (“Symmetrical Bodies Are More Beautiful to Humans,” National Geographic News, August 18, 2008, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080818-body-symmetry.html). While that explanation might account for their experimental findings, evolutionary concerns would seem to have no relevance to the prediction and discovery of the Ω- particle. This structure of the “system” of subatomic particles led Stephen Barr to suggest that when we encounter symmetry and beauty in art and in the laboratory we are perceiving “the mind of an artist at work far above the level of our own minds” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 104).

N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar and retired Bishop of Durham (Church of England), arrived at a similar conclusion. In the opening chapters of Simply Christian, he discussed four concepts: justice, the spiritual sense that seems common to much of humanity, the necessity of human relationships, and the appreciation of beauty. He identified each of these matters as the “echo” of a distant voice that is seeking to communicate with us. According to Wright, if we will attend to that voice, we will discover that we are encountering God.

Vienna, Austria: St. Stephen's Cathedral (Photograph by Warren Johnson, May 2007)

Vienna, Austria: St. Stephen’s Cathedral
(Photograph by Warren Johnson, May 2007)

I lack the musical sophistication to explain why I find beauty in Beethoven and in bluegrass music; nevertheless, I know the sense of awe that accompanies a direct encounter with beauty. Once, during an overnight stay in Vienna, Austria, I entered St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Gothic edifice in the heart of that city. Though I had visited the cathedral previously, on this occasion I found myself speechless. White cloths had been draped from floor to ceiling along the nave, enhancing the sense of symmetry in the appearance of the sanctuary and emphasizing the perception that the walls soared up to heaven itself. A similar sensation occurred on my first hearing of Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei.” Reflecting on such moments, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

Be still, and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth

(Ps 46:10, NIV 1984)

The substantial reality of beauty in the kosmos can be debated; like faith, a recognition of beauty cannot be imposed on another person. The essential reality of beauty in Creation cannot be denied; ktisis transcends kosmos and the beauty of Creation is a whisper of the presence of the Creator in his ktisis.

RWJ

The Don Quixote of Catan

My wife, Amanda, and I once taught her parents how to play Settlers of Catan. They’re not big fans of board games; it was the first and last time we played Catan with them. That evening was memorable, though, because of how my father-in-law, Rod, played the game. We explained that, when a seven is rolled, players with eight or more cards must lose half of their (figurative) hand. Rod observed, “This game teaches you to be a good steward by not hoarding resources.”

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Photo by ginnerobot. Creative Commons license.

Also, when a seven is rolled, the person who rolled the dreaded number gets to move the Robber onto another player’s territory and plunder a card from the hapless player’s hand. We noticed that Rod would never wield the Robber against any of us, choosing instead to place the Robber on unsettled territory. He felt that using the Robber to his advantage ran counter to Christian ethics. My father-in-law’s perspective on the game influenced how Amanda and I play. Since that night, we have not used the Robber to plunder from other players, and we try hard not to keep too many cards in our hands.

A few months later, we were playing Catan with good friends of ours. They noticed (or we told them—I don’t remember) that we weren’t using the Robber, and we explained why. Their response: “That’s stupid. It’s a game. The Robber is part of how you play.”

I tell this story not to cast judgment on our friends who willingly employed the Robber to build their settlement nor to seek applause for our “moral” playing of the game. Rather, these incidents with the game point to an important question in literature.

When a person writes a story, he is creating a world within that text. It doesn’t have to be science fiction or fantasy; the world he creates can appear similar to the real world outside of the book, but the book’s world is unique in that it is the work of the writer’s hands and the product of his perceptions. The writer is the author—one who has authority through creation—who establishes the “rules of the game,” the laws of his world. The reader, then, in order to follow the story and understand its significance, has to “follow the rules.” To deny the laws governing the world set up by the author would result in a misinterpretation of the text.

Our friends thought it was ridiculous not to use the Robber because he is part of Catan’s reality. In a way, they were accusing us of being backwards Don Quixotes. Don Quixote blurred the lines between the chivalric romances and the real world, acting as if he were a character in one of his books. Amanda and I were blurring the lines in the other direction, bringing how we would live in the real world into the world of the game. In terms of the game, our friends thought we were as insane as the man of La Mancha.

don-quixote-vs-the-windmills

Don Quixote vs. the Windmills by Maria Hagsten Michelsen. Creative Commons license

But when we refuse to play the Robber, we are not denying the laws of the Catan world; unlike Don Quixote, we have not lost touch with the game’s reality. We admit that the Robber is part of the game, and we accept that our friends won’t hesitate to use the Robber against us and each other. If we didn’t, we would be playing a very different game. Rather, we’re playing in tension with the rules. I could be cute and say, “We’re in Catan, but we’re not of it.”

How are we able to operate in this tension? I believe it is because the game’s world is a subsidiary, a derivation. The creator of Catan’s world is really a creature and draws from the handiwork of the true Creator. The psalmist writes, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). John the Evangelist writes, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). So while the creator of Settlers of Catan set up the game’s reality, it still falls under God’s sovereignty, and His law still holds sway.

What, then, are the implications for reading literature? I see two. First, when we enter the world of the text, we have to realize that we are entering a constructed reality, and we must be cognizant of its governing rules. If we don’t, then we most likely will misunderstand the text, which is a disservice to its creator. (For more on our relationship with the author, see my post from last week.)

The recognition of a text’s reality might seem dangerous, and it could be, if that constructed reality is deleterious and we succumb to it. But this threat brings me to the second implication of our discussion: recognizing the text’s reality does not mean succumbing to it. As readers, we can operate in tension with the text’s reality, being in it but not of it. How? By remembering that the creator of the text’s reality is himself created. Therefore, the world of the text is also governed by the laws of the Master Creator. This ultimate reality can result in considerable tension as we traverse a text, especially written by an author hostile to faith, yet I believe that tension can yield great fruit.

I hope that this discussion also spurs you to consider the various “rules of the game” that you follow in life, be they in books, board games, television shows, workplaces, churches, or families. Do you accept those rules as the reality, or do put them in tension with the reality of our Creator’s rule?

 

zb