Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Benefits of Formality and Pageantry

Funeral procession for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II

In the middle of September in 2022, much of the world focused on the funeral rites of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, rites that brought formality and pageantry to center stage for many days.  As a Christian and an educator, I could not help considering formality and pageantry with regard to the life of faith and the life of learning and have begun discussing this with friends.  What follows are some early thoughts.


Except in the areas of sport and entertainment, we in the 21st century United States seem generally opposed to any kind of formality and pageantry.  Perhaps it smacks too much of hierarchy, which in turn recalls images of oppression.  Yet the bland landscape of the lowest common denominator, while, perhaps, providing some corrective to the abuses of hierarchy, has led to its own, sad effects.  At this point in history, misuse and abuse of formality and pageantry hardly need to be described, nor do the benefits of level, egalitarian approaches to just about everything.  The former are simply accepted de facto as bad and the latter as good.  And yet, a garden hoe is a wonderful tool when it is used in planting vegetables.  It is horrible weapon when it is used in committing murder.  So it is with most things, most events, most systems, and most people.  Almost everything has its good and bad aspects.  In the course of this piece I want to examine the benefits of formality and pageantry and the less desirable consequences of the bland and the level.

The Text That Started It All

What follows is part of a text thread among some close friends and me.

Friend:  For what it’s worth, I wanted to share with you guys some thoughts I had while watching the Royals funeral yesterday. Typically, I’m totally not into any of that stuff. For the longest time, I ridiculed the monarchy, and questioned its relevance. Nevertheless, the pageantry and reverential respect I saw yesterday really moved me. My main impression was that God had somehow written royalty on our hearts. All throughout Scripture, from beginning to end, we see images of royalty. There are thrones, a Royal Court, crowns, scepters, etc. There are subjects who bow and lie prostrate before the King. God refers to us as “a royal priesthood.” In the Lord’s Prayer, there’s the line, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.“ It seems to me that there are components in heaven that are duplicated here on earth. I believe the monarchy is one of those elements. I believe God has allowed it to continue even in our time as a reminder of our eventual home and eternal reality. It really moved me unexpectedly yesterday. The longing God has placed in our hearts is real and palpable in every way. May we be found worthy to be in the King’s Court!

Me: My brother, I heartily concur. In fact, those very thoughts had been going through my mind. I’m so glad you gave voice to them. And when I saw them returning her crown, scepter, and orb to the altar at St. George’s Chapel, I was struck by how that symbolized that all authority comes from God, just as Jesus said said to Pilate in John 19. That authority may exercised in accordance with or in opposition to His will, but it originates with Him. Thank you so much for saying this.

And, I would add, that the loss of such pageantry and majesty in our social and religious life has contributed to the results of that survey about evangelicals not believing Jesus is God. Yes, such pageantry can become empty of meaning and constricting of life, just as it did with the Israelites and has in many high church expressions through the ages. But swinging the pendulum to the far extreme of pole barn churches with everything sung and taught in the lowest common denominator has brought forth its own sad effects along with any restorative work it may have done to counteract the former.

Friend: Amen, brother. The days are dark and the time is short. This is the church’s last shot at impacting the world. Orthodoxy is dying. We need to stay connected and stand firm. Blessed to be doing it with you guys!

Pole Barns and Cathedrals

I wrote above that I would not rehash the negative consequences of formality and pageantry and the positive effects of the bland and the level, but so ingrained are they in the public mind and so quick are we to defend our positions, that I am led to acknowledge, once again, that I know all this.  I know the arguments, for example, against elaborate church architecture and in favor of multi-purpose worship spaces, and I would remind those who already are arming themselves for rebuttal by rehearsing those arguments that it is not necessary.  I know them.

What my friends and I were observing in our text thread is that there is something good, something salutary, something edifying in the architectural and artistic glories of a grand church.  Coupled with eloquent and poetic liturgies and rites, these glories in and of themselves teach something that is impossible, or at least quite difficult, to do in a bland, multi-purpose space, namely, the majesty of God and our relationship to it and Him.  A recent survey has revealed that in 2022, 43% of evangelical Christians do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.  It is not immediately clear what definition of "evangelical" the survey used, but any percentage of any group claiming to be Christian yet not acknowledging that Jesus is God is startling.  Neither my texting friends nor I would say that the sole reason for this is either the bland architecture, doctrinally shallow worship music, or less than robust biblical teaching and preaching of many churches, but combined, these have undoubtedly shaped how Christians understand and relate to their Lord.  Consider what is being said in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and hymns such as "Holy, Holy, Holy," "The Church's One Foundation," and "O Worship the King."  Imagine those ideas being expressed in space designed to lift the heart and mind above the mortal coil and into the realms of the sublime.  Those steeped in such regular worship could certainly choose to reject Christ Jesus as God, but it would take a bit of effort.

Temple of Saint Sava, Belgrade, Serbia (photo credit:  Brad Mitchell)*

The Pink Floyd Effect

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone
All in all it's just another brick in the wall
All in all you're just another brick in the wall

"Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" from the 1979 album The Wall by prog rock band Pink Floyd captures the driving force behind the lack of formality and pageantry in most schools today.  These are linked in the minds of many with rote, drill-and-kill methods that sucked the life from education more powerfully and completely than a black hole.  And yet, in an attempt to unleash the inspiration of Parnassus in our schools by doing away with such things and making student choice the order of the day, it is more often the case that Bedlam has been let out.  Bill Day, an award-winning teacher from Washington, D.C., discussed this in a podcast several years ago.  Routines and rituals are vitally important in a child's development and, if implemented well, need not be stifling and restrictive.

One of the first things visitors to our Latin classroom notice is the wall of bookshelves.  There are more than twelve hundred books in our room, and while all are available for anyone's use, they serve a function beyond research.  They, along with the various busts and works of art, send the quiet signal that this is a place of serious learning.  Certain rituals that start and end each class convey this as well, even as ebullient laughter is the sound most often heard within our walls.

In his 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities titled "The Vindication of Tradition," Yale theologian Jaroslav Pelikan famously observed, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name."  Rich traditions with formality and pageantry can, when employed rightly, lead us beyond ourselves, which should be the goal of any act of worship or education.  Their absence too often leaves us in a bland, desolate landscape with little company other than the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I.

*My friend Brad Mitchell, credited above with the photograph of the Temple of Saint Sava in Belgrade, shared these pictures of from the Sinaia Monastery in Prahova County, Romania, as well.  Since they so beautifully complement the theme of this post, I wanted to included them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Little Green Men From Greece?

A search for space aliens and antiquity will take you into some of the stranger parts of the Internet, but is the idea of intelligent life on another planet merely a staple of modern science fiction?  As it turns out, humans have been giving this some thought for more than 2,500 years.

Philosophy and Science (Fiction)

Lactantius, c250-c325

While preparing for one of the most exciting units of study I will have ever entered into with a high school class (MUCH more on this to come), I ran across a quotation from Lactantius, the early Christian author who was an advisor to the Roman emperor Constantine at the time of his conversion to Christianity.  A quick search for the Latin text at Documenta Catholica Omnia, one of the greatest text repositories on the Internet, turned up the quotation and a bit more.

Xenophanes...dixit, intra concavum lunae sinum esse aliam terram et ibi aliud genus hominum simili modo vivere quo nos in hac terra vivimus.  Fuisse Seneca inter Stoicos ait, qui deliberaret utrumne Soli quoque suos populos daret.  Sed, credo, calor deterrebat ne tantam multitudinem periculo committeret.  (Institutiones Divinae III.23)

Xenophanes said that there was another earth inside the hollow bosom of the moon and that there another race of humans lived in a similar manner as we we live on this earth.  Seneca said that among the Stoics was one who deliberated whether he should also attribute to the Sun its own peoples.  But, I believe, the heat deterred him lest he commit such a great number of people to danger.  (Divine Institutes, III.23, translation mine)

It is amusing how Lactantius dismisses the unnamed Stoic's idea of a population on the Sun by suggesting he didn't want even in theory to condemn a race of people to such burning heat, but pause to consider that someone was even thinking about this in the time of Seneca, which was the first century A.D.  Even more striking is that Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher who lived from about 570 to about 478 B.C. kicked around a notion of another planet full of human beings existing inside the moon more than two thousand, five hundred years ago.  Lactantius scornfully disregarded that idea as well, but what is striking to me is how imaginative these ancient thinkers were.

Research Rabbit Trails

One of the things I love about academic life, whether lived out principally in elementary and secondary schools or at the undergraduate and graduate levels, is the discovery that comes from research rabbit trails.  While preparing for a new unit in a second-year Latin, high school Latin class, I chanced upon a quotation in a footnote that caught my attention.  That quotation led me to the original text of a Latin author from the third-to-fourth centuries, which in turn revealed the amazing imagination of a man named Xenophanes, who lived two and a half millennia and half a world from my own time and place.  As I have said countless times in talks and in writing and as has formed my Twitter background for many years, education is a shared journey of discovery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Three Johns


Our Latin students at Guerin Catholic High School explore a verse of the Bible in Latin each week, and this week the first-year students took a look at John 1:14, which reads, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us."  It is a verse that, especially when take with other verses from the Fourth Gospel, speaks to the divinity of Jesus, and we discussed that earlier in the week, but today we examined another aspect.

After the students spent some time reading the verse aloud to practice their Latin pronunciation, I told them to think back to the book of Genesis and then asked, "In whose image are we made?"  They quickly answered, "God's," and I pointed out that this was a pretty big deal.  After all, God could have created donkeys and then said, "Let us create man in the image of the donkey."  And then I suggested that what John 1:14 has to say is an even bigger deal than that.

From there we took a look at the work of another John, the English poet John Donne (1572-1631).  I pulled up on our large screen Holy Sonnet XV, and we spent a few minutes with the second half of the poem.  You can read the full sonnet at the link above, the but the lines on which we focused were these.

And as a robb'd man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

I invited the students to turn to the faith section of their notebooks and to jot down their thoughts on what it means to them that God became one of us.  Often this will lead to a sharing of ideas, but this time I told them that their thoughts would remain their own.  This was to be a time of private reflection.

After they had taken their time to ponder, I told them a story, one that came from a third person named named John.  In Season 2, Episode 10 of The West Wing, a character named Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer, encourages a colleague by telling him the following parable.

This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep he can't get out.  A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, "Hey, you! Can you help me out?"  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.  Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, "Father, I'm down in this hole.  Can you help me out?"  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  "Hey, Joe, it's me!  Can you help me out?"  And the friend jumps in the hole.  Our guy says, "Are you stupid?  Now we're both down here."  The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out."

Before moving on with the grammatical lesson of the day, I suggested to the students that when they are overwhelmed in life, they should reach out to the One Who has been down here, with us, before.  He knows the way out.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Civil Discourse

I recently wrote about some of the institutional madness that is crippling American education and invited parents to say something about it.  One reader left this comment.  "Your call to action for parents has me feeling ambivalent.  I have read the minutes of local school board meetings that consist of parents shouting about masks.  [W]hat troubles me is the manner that parents have gone about these conversations.  We are all collaborators in the education of our children.  Why can't we approach disagreements with genuine curiosity?"

There is a simple key to making our civic discourse more civil and filled with the kind of curiosity this reader and countless others desire, but while it is simple, it seems difficult for many to put into practice.  We all know the old adage, "Listen more and talk less," and although this would indeed move the level of communication in the public square toward the humane end of the spectrum, there is something else that, if implemented, should clear things up in a hurry.

Good Morning, Eastside High

In the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam, comedic legend Robin Williams portrayed Adrian Cronauer, a radio personality for the Armed Forces Radio Service.  Despite the genius that Williams brings to the movie, hilarious performances are also given to us by Bruno Kirby as Lieutenant Hauk and Noble Willingham as General Taylor.  In one scene the lieutenant explains to the general why he thinks a bit that Cronauer did on air regarding Vice-President Richard Nixon was disrespectful, noting that the former V.P. is a "good man and a decent man."  The general disagrees in some rather salty language, modified here for more sensitive readers.  The original script can be found here.

General Taylor:  Bull!  I know Nixon personally.  He lugs a trainload of manure behind him big enough to fertilize the Sinai.  Why, I wouldn't buy an apple off the man, and I consider him a good, close, personal friend.

Just two years later we saw the Morgan Freeman movie Lean On Me in which Freeman plays high school principal Joe Clark who takes over struggling Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey, in an effort to make it an institution of true education once again.  His heavy-handed tactics, however, land him in hot water with the superintendent, Dr. Napier, portrayed by Robert Guillaume.  In a tense verbal altercation, the superintendent lays down the law.

Dr. Napier:  End of discussion!  Debate is over!  You will write a formal apology for your treatment of Mrs. Elliott and Darnell and for your thoughtless insult to the women of this community!  Get used to it! It's the way of the world!  If you're so hot for discipline, then start by accepting mine!  Come on.  Let's get something to eat.

Bullshit!|I know Nixon personally.W
He lugs a trainload of shit behind him|that would fertilize the Sinai.
Why, I wouldn't buy an apple from|the son of a bitch, and I consider|him a good, close, personal friend

Read more:

What do these scenes have in common?  They both portray the ability of people to disagree, yet get along.  They show that it is possible for one person to call another out for being wrong and yet for the two of them to remain friends.  They give us a clear picture that dispute and civility, disagreement and amiability, can live side by side in our hearts, words, and actions.  The question, of course, is how this is possible.

#1 Rule of Engagement

Neither give nor take anything personally in discourse about ideas.  There it is.  That is the number one rule of engagement that makes discourse civil, which is usually if not always a prerequisite to pursuit of curiosity.  To reference just one more movie from the '80s, consider a scene from the Patrick Swayze action flick Road House.  Swayze's character Dalton takes over security at a Missouri road house where the customers have become used to getting out of hand.  At his first meeting with the bar staff, he tells them not to take insults from inebriated customers personally.  One of the bouncers questions whether or not a particularly vulgar appellation is personal or not, and Dalton replies, "No.  It's two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response."  Unwilling to let the matter go, the bouncer continues.

Bouncer:  What if someone calls my momma a whore?
Dalton:  Is she?

Shakespeare it's not, but the scene illustrates a vital point in public discourse.  Don't take things personally.  Ideally, don't dish out anything personal either, as that amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem attack, but even if someone else does not know the rules of civility, you still have the choice of whether to respond.

There is a widely accepted belief that we must answer every taunt and insult in kind, or perhaps even go it one better.  Why?  Why is that necessary?  Someone calls you a name or insults something or someone you hold dear.  What, exactly, is gained by your doing the same in response?  To return to Road House, another bouncer tells Dalton when he first arrives that he had heard he was really tough, but then adds, "You don't look like much to me."  Dalton merely responds, "Opinions vary."

The Path To Killing Cats

It is said that curiosity killed the cat, and that may well be true if the feline confused the ball of string with a ball of electrical wire, but for humans curiosity is the key to learning.  The person who commented on my other post asked why we can't approach disagreements with genuine curiosity, and too often the reason is that we have violated the first rule of engagement.  Curiosity and exploration many times come to dead ends and wrong conclusions.  That is part of the adventure and, dare I say, the fun.  Sometimes we need to be told rather directly that we are wrong, but if we take everything as a personal slight, we can never have the meaningful engagement that genuine curiosity and learning require.

To end with one more reference to a dramatic scene, consider an episode from the television series The West Wing, which ran from 1999-2004.  John Amos, who superbly portrayed James Evans in the '70s sitcom Good Times and Kunta Kinte in the miniseries Roots, gives equally powerful performances as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  In season 1, episode 3 of The West Wing, the President's chief-of-staff is about to hire a young, African-American man as personal assistant to the President.  He asks Admiral Fitzwallace if he would have a problem with it, since the young man would occasionally have to carry the President's bags.

Admiral Fitzwallace:  You gonna pay him a decent wage?  You gonna treat him with respect?  Then why should I care?  I've got real battles.  I don't have time for cosmetic ones.

If we take a page from the admiral's book, we will be more likely to engage in civil discourse, and this allows curiosity to flourish and true learning to take place.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Brazen Chains of Madness

Venus Petitioning Jupiter on behalf of Aeneas, 18th century

In Book I of the Aeneid, Jupiter describes to Venus a coming age of peace for the as yet unfounded Roman people.  One of the features of that peace was that Madness

saeva sedens super arma, et centum vinctus aenis
post tergum nodis, fremet horridus ore cruento.

Upon its savage weapons and bound with a hundred bronze knots
Behind its back will frightfully roar with its bloody mouth.  (Aeneid I.295-296, translation mine)

But what if those brazen chains were created by insanity itself?  Surely those bound would also roar frightfully, and so they do in the halls of many American schools.

When Teachers Talk

I recently attended a conference during which those in my session shared some of the evaluative practices in their schools.  As soon as one teacher mentioned having to provide documentation of various instructional practices for year-end evaluation, the others almost unanimously chimed in to share their own experiences of the sort of top-down hamstringing of educators that is all too common.  I immediately thought of the scene in the movie Gladiator in which Maximus exclaims to his trainer, "Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo.   This is not it.  This is not it!"

Imagine Pope Julius II requiring Michelangelo to document how he involved the painters on his team in the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Imagine the great painter being forced to provide evidence for the different approaches to fresco he had employed.  Wouldn't it have been better simply to gaze at the finished ceiling in awe and wonder?

This insanity of binding our teachers with chains of bronze stems from treating education like a quantifiable natural science, which it is not.  It stems from the belief that such control improves learning.  It stems from the belief that a pseudo-scientific veneer will give credibility to a maligned profession.  It stems from the need to justify various administrative positions created to orchestrate this circus of bedlam, a word used here in its original sense as a colloquial pronunciation of "Bethlehem," the famous mental hospital in London.

If This Bothers You

I do not suffer from such professional indignity, such deliberate obstruction of true education, at the school where I currently teach, but far too many of my friends and colleagues in other schools do, and this is one reason private, public charter, hybrid, and homeschool models have the freedom to operate more nimbly and efficiently.  As I once told a friend who was on the school board of the public school district in which I taught, this should bother you, but the response should not be to shackle non-public educators in a similar way, but rather to remove the ridiculous restraints from all teachers.

A good friend of mine who is not in the field of education replied after I had told him about the experience with my conference colleagues mentioned above, "Bureaucrats will, by nature, legislate the life out of innovators and entrepreneurs -- leaving organizations highly regulated but without a pulse."  Any good teacher at the primary, secondary, or university level can testify to the truth of that statement, and tax-paying citizens should know that this is what is happening in their schools.  Would you rather the teachers of your children spend their time designing creative ways to help their students learn from the past and prepare for the future or in keeping track of artifacts to prove whether a particular approach to teaching was used the correct percentage of time?

Living in the Land of Sokal

In 1996 Alan Sokal, physics professor at NYU and University College London, published an article in Social Text, a journal of postmodern culture studies.  The article was titled "Transgressing the Boundaries:  Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" and proposed that quantum gravity was nothing more than a social and linguistic construct.  The article was sheer nonsense, and Sokal's aim was to expose academic publishing for the Emperor's New Clothes that it too often peddled.  The article was published, and a few weeks later Sokal revealed the whole thing had been a hoax.

I am willing to bet that most teachers today will recognize the academicese of Sokal's article title.  Consider for a moment the following paragraph.

"If one examines precapitalist deappropriation, one is faced with a choice: either reject constructivist capitalism or conclude that art may be used to marginalize minorities. But Marx uses the term 'precapitalist deappropriation' to denote the paradigm of postsemantic sexual identity. A number of discourses concerning deconstructivist neocultural theory exist."

To the teachers reading this, I ask how similar that sounds to something you were supposed to read for a professional development session you have attended in the past few years.  It is precisely the kind of thing we are used to, and yet that paragraph came from an article that was intentionally created as pure nonsense at  The creators of the site use a tool called the Dada Engine, "a system for generating random text from recursive grammars."  As they note on their website, "The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodern Generator."  They describe the background for this in an actual, non-nonsensical article here.

In that article, author Arthur C. Bulhak of Monash University references the work of Douglas Hofstadter in his Pulitzer-winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid.

Hofstadter is a brilliant and inquisitive person whose work takes him through philosophy, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, and more.  Many years ago I had the pleasure of taking him to dinner and, as I wrote in another post, he was no fan of jargon.

Years ago I had the opportunity of taking Douglas Hofstadter to dinner before he gave the inaugural lecture in an annual series a colleague and I had developed at our high school.  This Pulitzer-winning author who works in cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, and seemingly everything else, spoke on what may have seemed a strange topic for him.  His talk was titled "Is Modern Poetry Complete Rubbish?," and in it he took issue with poets who write in such confused ways and on such esoteric topics that no one reads their work.  In fact, he found the poetry of "Surrey With a Fringe on Top" to be of more value than much contemporary work, which he considered little more than prose with a ragged right margin.  Even in discussing other more heady topics, he had a particular abhorrence for jargon.  In that he reminded me of the character Margrethe Bohr, who in Daniel Frayn's play Copenhagen persistently asked her husband, Niels, and Werner Heisenberg to put their theories in plain language.

No Vermicelli With Red Sauce

A fellow graduate student asked me one day years ago if the lunch I was heating up in the office microwave were vermicelli with red sauce.  It was rather obviously just spaghetti, yet "vermicelli with red sauce" apparently sounded more sophisticated.  To educators everywhere, resist the urge to use jargon and the pseudo-scientific collection of data as if doing so actually improves teaching and learning or gives any respect to our profession.  It doesn't.  It is merely laughable.  Teaching is a difficult calling.  Those who cannot understand and respect that...well, that's on them.  Posturing merely hinders the work of teachers who are leading their students on the shared journey of discovery that is education and working to correct the true causes of failing education.

To parents, do not be fooled by lofty language and jargon about time spent by your children's teachers on some of the practices of their job.  One of my students' parents used to ask me about what teachers were being asked to do in the school where I taught.  She was involved in what was going on in the lives of her children, as she should have been.  If your "Spidey senses" begin to tingle when you hear what is happening in the lives of your children's teachers, if you begin to sense that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," then dig a bit deeper.  If it turns out that those teachers are being bound by the brazen chains of madness, help them to break free by telling administrators and school board members that you will not accept it.  Good schools see their enrollments increase and teaching positions easily filled.  Bad schools do not.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Phaëthon vs. Jesus

What happens when someone challenges a young man's paternity?  Should he take up the challenge and prove his accusers wrong, or should he use a different approach?  And what is the role of pagan mythology in a Christian school?

Jesus Teaches Logic Class

In Books I and II of his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells the story of Phaëthon, who was challenged by his friends regarding whether the sun, personified as Sol, was in fact his father.  To prove his lineage, Phaëthon asked Sol for permission to drive his chariot, which pulled the fiery ball across the sky.  Chaos ensued when the young man was unable to control the horses as they soared high above the earth, causing the tops of mountains to freeze, or dove too close to the earth's surface, burning the areas that became deserts.  In the end Zeus was forced to intervene by hurling a lightning bolt that killed Phaëthon and allowed Sol to regain control.

There is an interesting parallel between this famous story of Greco-Roman mythology and an episode we find with Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-12.  After having fasted for forty days, Satan tempts, or tests Jesus regarding His identity as the Son of God.  In the first two of the three tests, Satan begins by saying, "If you are the Son of God."  For the sake of this piece, we will only look at the first of the three tests, the one in which Satan challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread.  His exact words are, translating literally from the Greek, "If you are the Son of God, speak to this stone so that it may become bread."

Whereas Phaëthon sees the challenge to his paternity as a simple matter to be proven, Jesus recognizes that there is more going on and that Satan has in fact presented Him with a dilemma, which runs as follows.

If you are the Son of God, you will turn this stone into bread.

If you turn this stone into bread, you are doing what I tell you to do and thus are subservient to me.

You have only two choices.  You will either turn the stone into bread or you will not.

If you do not turn the stone into bread, then you are not the Son of God, but if you do turn it into bread, then you are doing what I tell you and thus are subservient to me.

It would seem that Satan has trapped Jesus on the horns of a dilemma, but Jesus deftly avoids the logical trap by, as we say, going through the horns.  He simply refuses to accept either of the two unacceptable options, admitting to not being the Son of God or admitting to being subservient to Satan, and cites Deuteronomy 8:3, which says that we are not to live on bread alone in the first place but on every word that comes from God.  As we read so often throughout the gospels, Jesus simply will not be taken in by the verbal trickery of others, and this can be a good reminder to us as well that just because people may try to trap us in argument, we do not have to respond in the way they expect.  By keeping our eyes fixed on God and His word, we will respond in truth and need never fear the conversational dilemma.

Christians and Mythology

It may seem that Christians should not bother themselves with reading and studying pagan mythology, and some Christians have taken just such an approach to learning, relying on no less redoubtable a supporter for their position than St. Augustine.  In Confessions I.13 he wrote,

Quid enim miserius misero non miserante se ipsum et flente Didonis mortem, quae fiebat amando Aenean, non flente autem mortem suam, quae fiebat non amando te, Deus, lumen cordis mei...?

For what is more wretched than some wretch not pitying himself and weeping over the death of Dido, which happened by loving Aeneas, but not weeping for his own death, which happened by not loving You, O God, the light of my heart...?

Augustine rightly saw that it is folly to delve so deeply into the lives of fictional characters like Dido and Aeneas from Vergil's Aeneid while ignoring our own spiritual condition, but this does not mean that we must approach literature and faith as an either-or proposition.  Contrasting the story of Phaëthon with the episode of Jesus and Satan, we gain an even greater understanding of and appreciation for the boldness of Christ's response to His enemy.  It helps us see more clearly how we can respond to our own temptations as we endeavor to stand strong in imitation of our Lord.

What works of fiction have helped you grow in your walk with Jesus?  How has Scripture allowed you to critique and read differently the novels and plays and poetry and movies that enter your life?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

In Defense of Modern Story Telling

Rage -- goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles.

So begins one of the earliest works of dramatic poetry in human history, the Iliad by Homer.  Contrast that with the famous opening of Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.  "All of Gaul is divided into three parts."  The latter introduces a work of nonfiction and is just what one would expect from a general writing in the field.  There is no preface.  The work jumps straight into the facts.  The opening line in the Iliad, however, makes it clear that this work is something different, and although both works describe events of war, Homer's first line declares that he has something more to communicate than facts alone.  He draws our attention immediately into the emotional world of one man.  He takes us to another time and place, immersing us in a tale of his own creation, and in so doing shows himself to be a story teller.

Immersion in Time and Place

A story does more than convey facts.  It attempts to draw people into a time and place different from their own, and it is one of the extraordinary powers of language to do just that.  It is one thing to state that a picture taken in 2021 is of a spiral galaxy and something else entirely to say, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."  The famous opening to the Star Wars movies, which is nothing more than a string of words that do not even form a complete sentence, triggers something in our minds.  It sparks our imagination, and we enter a time and place we have never been.  This is what good story telling does, and we have been doing it for thousands of years and always with one goal, to transport our audience ever deeper into, ever closer to the image that we have in mind.


We quickly learned that for all the power of spoken language to accomplish this feat of transportation, acting out those words brought our audience a bit more into the story, and hence was born the stage play. Thespis in the sixth century B.C. was the first to perform a story, and thespians have continued his work unbroken to today.  And then the roof blew off.

Non-Book Snobbery

I have never understood the snobbery of those who look down their noses at stories presented in a form other than that of the written page.  For those of us who enjoy reading, there is an immense pleasure in the activity, and the preference for images conjured in one's own mind by written words over those given to us visually is fair enough, but the underlying goal of storytelling remains to draw the audience ever deeper into, ever closer to the story in the author's mind, we have been adding to the written word ever since Thespis first trod the boards.  We have added music and costumes and sets.  With the advent of cameras we created motion pictures and then motion pictures with sound.  Suddenly anything seemed possible.  We could travel to the moon long before Neil Armstrong was old enough to pronounce the word.  Always the goal remained of becoming more immersed into the story, and a major leap forward was the introduction of 3-D technology.  Images leapt out of the screen, causing us to flinch as our brains told us that an object was in fact about to hit us.  Homer, with his poetic descriptions of brazen arms clanging about a warrior's head as his teeth clenched the bloody dust, would surely have approved.

From Georges Méliès's 1902 film A Trip To the Moon

Flying Through a Quidditch Pitch

My family recently visited Universal Studios in Orlando for the first time, and as we thoroughly enjoyed each other and our experience, I could not help but think a bit as we strolled through the blazing Florida sun.  We went on many of the rides, but one will suffice for the purposes of this piece, Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey.  In this as in most of its other attractions, Universal has constructed a seamless blend of video and physical set pieces to take guests directly into various stories.  In the case of The Forbidden Journey, guests walk through Hogwarts, the legendary wizarding school, and everything convinces you that this is the real thing.  By the time you have made your way through the queue, you are deeply immersed in the sense of the place, and then you enter the ride itself.  The video below does not even begin to do justice to the experience.

Your brain becomes utterly convinced that you are in fact flying...soaring out of Hogwarts, swooping over a Quidditch pitch, and hurtling just beyond the reach of a dragon's flaming breath whose heat you can actually feel....and your body reacts accordingly.

From Homer to Thespis to...

I love reading.  In fact, I took one novel with me on our trip to Florida and downloaded two others along the way.  Yet as a reader and a writer, I never lose sight of the fact that connection, immersion, and identity are what it is all about.  We want to share ideas and experiences by helping other connect with them, immerse themselves in them, and become part of them.  Current technology has taken storytelling to the next level in this, and I for one cannot wait to see where we will go next.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Bridging The Gap


Marcene Holverson, me, Bryan McCorkle, my mom

All teachers and students begin with the same type of relationship.  The one knows something the other does not, together they work so that both know the same thing, and for the majority of those thus engaged, the relationship progresses no further.  This is not to say that teachers and students do not care for one another, often quite deeply, but there is a gap existing between them that, while narrowed by this and that, is rarely bridged so that a new type of relationship is formed.  But what happens when it is bridged?

The Pontifical Nature of Teaching

All teaching is pontifical in nature, which is to say, it involves bridge building.  As I wrote in another post, "Matters of faith and religion connect the human with the transcendent, and a teacher, no less than a priest, is a pontiff, which, as the Latin root pontifex reveals, is a bridge builder.  Teachers help to connect students with ideas, with others, with themselves, and at times even with what lies beyond it all."  With Marcene Farley, there was another bridge being built during my senior year in high school, although we were both unaware of its construction or where it would lead.

Marcene arrived as the new Latin teacher for the start of my senior year and was called Miss Holverson back then, having not yet met her husband Mack.  She did the things that a good teacher does and then some, including taking my friend Bryan and me to the state Latin convention.  This, of course, required Roman attire, and Marcene participated right along with the rest of us.  Then again, she clearly had a penchant for dressing up in class, but this was all part of her strategy for helping to build that bridge between her students and the life of ancient Rome.


The Other Side of the Desk

When people become teachers, they often speak of moving to the other side of the desk, which is to say they gain a new perspective on what goes on in a classroom.  Nearly everyone knows what it is like to be a student, but the view is far different from the position of teacher.  Fortunately, I had in Marcene a teacher who was also a colleague.  Although we never taught in the same school, we talked many times over the years, often at length, about issues in education and with our particular students.  We shared triumphs and heartbreaks in a way that only teachers can, for teachers are involved in that most human of enterprises, the shared journey of discovery, and like any journey, there are both pinnacles and pitfalls.

I was fortunate to speak at Marcene's invitation on a number of occasions once she had moved back to Illinois was teaching at Pekin Community High School.  Three times I had the opportunity to address the Illinois Junior Classical League convention when she hosted it at her school and performed my presentation of Cicero at the Eta Sigma Phi convention at her alma mater, Monmouth College.  I was always pleased to speak at her invitation, and there was an excitement for both of us.  We were able to reconnect not only as teacher and student, but as colleagues, and it was clear that the bridge was extending far from what it had been when I was in high school


De Amicitia

Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote a treatise on friendship called De Amicitia, or "On Friendship."  A passage I have quoted often says this.  "Qui esset tantus fructus in prosperis rebus, nisi haberes, qui illis aeque ac tu ipse gauderet? Adversas vero ferre difficile esset sine eo qui illas gravius etiam quam tu ferret."  (De Amicitia, 22).  "How great would be the benefit in good times if you did not have someone who would rejoice in them as much as you?  Indeed it would be difficult to bear adversity without someone who would bear it even more gravely than you."

Marcene was with me when I was named 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year and she was with me again when my son and I saw '80s hair band Stryper near where she lived.  In fact, she was the one who yelled to leader singer Michael Sweet to get his attention, which led to the first of my many interactions with the rock star.  It was no surprise that she would do this.  After all, she once talked with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister about his Latin tattoo!  Cicero was right in what he said, for both of those moments were all the better for her being part of them.

Dee Snider and Marcene

When her husband, Mack, passed away, I traveled to Illinois for the funeral.  I wouldn't have missed it for anything.  I was there to support my friend in keeping with the second part of what Cicero wrote.

And I was there for Marcene's retirement party at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.  There was a constant stream of people for hours that Saturday afternoon as former students, their parents, and colleagues came to show their love for a woman who had touched so many lives in such profound ways.  My only quibble with the event is about one of the gifts she received.  Someone gave her a mug that says, "I came, I taught, I retired," but that last part only expresses a momentary fact of history.  The mug should have read, "I came, I taught, I shaped lives in ways I will never know."


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Hidden Treasure


I recently thought I had fallen into a real life version of a Dan Brown novel or the Nicholas Cage move National Treasure.  As I scrolled through some of my picture uploads on Facebook, I found one of the title page of a book I had forgotten I owned.  I knew instantly where the book was, and given what it was, I could hardly wait to pull it from its shelf.  When I did, I discovered something even more amazing.  

My Currently Favorite Collection

I am not a huge collector of things, but I have enjoyed collecting fountain pens, miniature Mustang cars, and the complete discography of certain rock and metal artists.  My favorite collection at the moment, however, is of English translations of Vergil's Aeneid.  In the fall of 2021, I launched a website listing every English translation of the epic poem in chronological order from the first in 1513 to the most recent.  I wrote about that website in a post called "Mr. Holland's Aeneid," which explains that the new website Aeneid Translator would include a color-coded system to indicate the translations that I actually own.  Until recently, my collection totaled thirty-seven translations, including every one from 1937 through 2021.  Just the other day, that total climbed to thirty-eight.

As I was scrolling through some old pictures on Facebook, I ran across one from the title page to a translation of the works of Vergil.  Since the picture was in my photos, I realized that I must own the book and immediately remembered

not only that I did own it, but where it was in my bookcases.  I ran to that particular bookcase, pulled off the volume, and began to explore what I had.

The Excitement of Discovery

The oldest translation of Vergil's Aeneid in my possession is the 1685 translation by John Dryden, but it is a 20th century edition.  Prior to my recent discovery, I had thought the oldest volume in our personal library was the 1794 edition of Cicero's De Oratore that I had purchased at an antiquarian bookshop in Florence, Italy.  This forgotten edition of Vergil published in 1770 bested that by twenty-four years.

It is the dream of book lovers to discover a long lost work.  Indeed, this idea forms the core of one of the best-selling books of all time, Umberto Eco's The Name of The Rose, but let us be clear.  I did not unearth on a bookshelf in my Indiana home the lost second book of Aristotle's Poetics.  Still, just as children enjoy dressing up and playing as their favorite literary or movie characters, so I enjoyed the thrill of discovery when I realized just how old this volume was and what it contained.

As you can see from the title page in the picture above, this book contains the prose translation of Vergil's works.  It is, in fact, the first of two volumes (someday, perhaps, I will procure the second), that cover all of the Roman poet's works, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid.  The prose rendering is that of Joseph Davidson, originally published in 1743.  As you can see from the opening page to the first book of the Aeneid, this is more than a simple translation.

Each page contains the Latin text, a section titled Ordo that puts the Latin into more traditionally English word order, Davidson's prose translation, and then copious notes.  After the double discovery of the oldest book in my library and a translation of Vergil I did not remember I had, a third thrill of excitement came when I noticed that in Davidson's comparison of the opening lines of the Aeneid with those of Homer's Odyssey, he cited Alexander Pope's translation after giving the Greek.  I have a good friend who is Beowulf fan, and he and I love to tease each other about who was the better poet, the Beowulf bard or Alexander Pope.  For my money, Pope will always win.  I have loved his heroic couplets since I was a senior in high school, and his translation of Homer, particularly the Iliad, is one of my favorite works of all time.

Holding a first edition of Pope's Iliad translation from 1715

These discoveries alone would have been enough to excite a bibliophile, but something even better was hiding in these three-hundred-year-old pages.

The Chief Design of Education

At the beginning of his book, Davidson includes an essay "To Those Gentlemen Who have the immediate Care of Education," and in it he lays out an understanding of education that has been held in various degrees by most people in most cultures, is espoused and practiced by some of us today, but has for too many others become a lost treasure.

Davidson refers to those of us who are teachers as "faithful guides, who, no doubt, will, in whatever author you teach, guard your pupils against the influence of any thing that has a tendency to corrupt their principles or morals" and then goes on to show why Vergil is such a suitable author for this purpose.  According to Davidson, "There is a peculiar tenderness and humanity diffused through all his writings, which never fails to make the heart better, and sends away every well disposed mind from the reading of him, equally pleased and improved.  He animates the soul to the love of virtue, by setting before us the most noble examples; corrects the passions, by showing their fatal effects, when indulged to excess, or when directed to improper objects; makes us feel the peace and serenity they bring, when conducted by reason, and regulated within the bounds of prudence and moderation.  From him we learn the force of piety, and what powerful incentives to fortitude, and every heroic virtue, arise from the belief of a deity, and a providence supremely wise and good.  In a word, every image, every description, every character he exhibits; his fables, his allegories, his episodes, all are calculated, not only to please the fancy, but to instruct the judgment, and form the heart."

If that sounds quaint, outdated, or even inappropriate for the modern classroom, we have sad proof of how far we have drifted from the true purpose of education.  It is about far more than teaching mere facts, the sufficient memorization of which can be determined by an exam, and Davidson states this pointedly.  "To teach boys to understand an author's language, is, you know, but the least part of your duty.  To acquaint them with his spirit and virtuous design, to form their taste aright, that they may be able to correct his faults and relish his beauties, feel the force of his pious or humane sentiments, and learn to copy out his heroic characters, and imitate his generous examples; in a word, to teach them to be sound critics on life and manners and to distinguish the true from the false, ... this is your honourable province, and the chief design of education."

Isn't that asking too much of our teachers?  It is if we insist on placing foolish burdens on them under the guise of professionalism.  Earlier in his essay Davidson had explained why he had produced this particular edition of Vergil's works.  "If it gives you some relief from the more disagreeable and burdensome part of your work, it is only to leave you freer and more disengaged in the execution of what is the principal business of education."  Davidson knew, as have most people in most societies through the ages, that education is a grander enterprise than the mechanical drudgery into which it can be corrupted.  He went on to say, "You, by your very profession, are solemnly engaged to teach and exemplify goodness to mankind, at a time of life when they are most capable of being taught, when their docile minds may easily be moulded to every shape of goodness, and are susceptible of the most durable impressions.  [T]he legislature may enact, and the magistrate may execute salutary law; but what will all avail, unless the foundations of national virtue be laid in the right forming of the heart at first?  If the fountains be foul and impure, all the art of man will not make the streams run pure and unpolluted.  The Scripture tells us, that the tree must first be made good, and then its fruits will be good also; but if the tree be corrupt, the fruit likewise will partake of the corruption.  Indeed experience shows us, that the best education is not of itself sufficient to establish the mind in an habitual, uniform course of integrity; yet the same experience evinces, that nothing is of so much importance towards effecting this great end, as to give the mind an early turn and bias to the right side; and that, without this, all other means, humanly speaking, will have but a weak and transient influence."

The legislature may enact, and the magistrate may execute salutary law; but what will all avail, unless the foundations of national virtue be laid in the right forming of the heart at first?  What, indeed.