Thursday, March 28, 2024

Designing the Future


What is the role of design in the modern world?  Does it only apply to decorating your bedroom, or could it be about something more?  Industrial Design is a highly interdisciplinary field, and I recently had the opportunity to see some of the most recent designers who are about to shape how we interact with the world.

What Is Industrial Design?

Mine is the world of nouns and verbs, of poetry and philosophy, and specifically as these all played out two thousand years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.  When our son decided to major in Industrial Design at Purdue University, I had to go to the department website to see what it was all about.  That, of course, was but a first step, and over the years that my wife and I visited campus and saw what our son was doing, I began to gain a better understanding.

My first realization that our son's undergraduate program of study would not be like mine was when he took us to one of his classrooms during his freshman year.  My experience of collegiate study involved classrooms with desks and the main library on campus, especially in the 870 and 880 section of the ninth floor.  His was a workshop.  This would be a hands-on course of study, one that involved math, art, history, and much more.


He and his class would learn to sketch and ideate, design using the latest software, and then realize their ideas in wood and metal, plastic and cloth, and of course, 3-D printing.

Design Daze

Each year the senior class of the Industrial Design Department hosts a day-long event to showcase their work.  They fill a gallery in Yue Kong Pao Hall of Visual and Performing Arts with their work and present throughout the day in sessions in a nearby auditorium to an audience of industry professionals, their own ID professors, and delighted families and friends.


As I listened to these young designers share their creations, all of which had been created to address particular needs, from a variety of medical issues to safety concerns in sports, from advancements in military technology to better ways for us to interact with the natural world, several things became clear.  Design is about far more than merely making a product attractive.  The field of Industrial Design is about solving problems.  It is about listening to people and applying science and art and creativity to making their lives better.  As I work with my own students and talk with them about their dreams for the future, Industrial Design has become an area that I have shared with them and will continue to present as a possible course of study for those with the imagination to help design our future.

Special Note

I love talking with the parents of my students, but it was a treat like no other to be on the receiving end when Steve Visser, ID Professor and Program Coordinator, and Assistant Professor of ID Jung Joo Sohn both made it a point to talk with my wife and me about our son.  They knew him as more than a faceless student and spoke to his work and his preparedness for entering the world of Industrial Design.  Thanks to their efforts and all of the Purdue faculty, our son has enjoyed two internships during his undergraduate career and has been hired by Midwest Studios for a position he will begin after graduation.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

For Whom Homer Tolls

 "Ask not for whom the bell tolls," advised John Donne, quickly adding, "it tolls for thee."  Yet we may well ask for whom Homer tolls, or more accurately, for whom his song still sings today.  Are his writings texts to be translated, merely "a bit of Greek construe" as a student once argued with Michael Redgrave in the classic film The Browning Version?  Are they works to be mined to support this or that idea or cause du jour?  And what has all this to do with the reigning question across social media at the moment, "How often do you think of the Roman Empire?

Rome On My Mind

It would seem, if we are to believe the polls being conducted by women with the men they know, that Ray Charles may have had the land of Augustus in his thoughts when he famously covered Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 song "Georgia On My Mind."

For reasons passing understanding, "How often do you think about the Roman Empire" is the fun question going around the land, and one particular response to it caught my attention.

First, this man's comparison of the ancient world with the modern is sound.  Second, he has remembered what he has learned well enough to be largely correct and able to speak meaningfully.  Yet how many would write him off because he is shirtless on his porch and speaking with a southern accent?  This man is precisely the person for whom Homer still sings, and I'll tell you why.

A Glorious Birthright

As the video shows, this man can speak about the issues of his day with reference to the past in order to better understand and respond to his world.  Would that our many preening intellectuals and elected officials could do the same.  Nearly twenty-five years ago, Victor Davis Hanson wrote Who Killed Homer?, a book that takes no prisoners in calling out the elitism of contemporary classical studies.

My copy is highlighted on almost every page, with margin notes that frequently include exclamation marks, so I will give you just a brief taste of what Hanson has observed.

All that is left to the career Classicist is to play the theoretical game, to reinvent the Greeks and Roman each year, to dress up Homer as a transvestite this fall, a syllable-toting accountant next spring.  To do something else, something actually important, to put stone and text together, to combine papyrus and coin, to make sense of some noble, big idea for the carpenter, teacher, and dentist, would require an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century scholar like Gibbon, Mommsen, or Grote.  They would be persons of action, of wide reading, of passion and prejudice -- "assumers" and "generalizers," in other words, who, like Homer, rarely nod, have a life outside the campus, and are not ground out of modern American doctoral programs.

Here, interestingly enough, is what most closely binds the High Classicists:  they disdain the average student -- and the entire American middle class for that matter.  Yet those burger-flipping students constitute the vast majority of students in our colleges and universities....  (pp. 149-150)

Why are Homer and the rest of the classical Greco-Roman authors important for carpenters, teachers, and dentists, for burger-flipping students, and for people like the man in the video above?  It is because the works of these ancient writers, beautiful and dangerous and enlightening and disturbing as they may be, have become world heritage works, the birthright of all who claim to be human.  They must not be hidden behind lenses of ideology nor made inaccessible through a thick blanket of obscurantist jargon.  Hanson again, "We read Virgil in Latin to learn, word by powerful word, of man's heroic struggle with a nature that in the long run will always win, of humanity's destined confrontation with its own limitations" (p. 187).

The Roman Empire For All

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Spring, 1992 - Fall, 1993, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 2/3, printed an article that had originally been published in Harper's Magazine in March of 1966.  It was written by the eminent classicist and translator William Arrowsmith.  A professor at Boston University, Princeton University, MIT, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, and Emory, he also served as the chair of the Classics Department at The University of Texas, where I years later completed my M.A.  He was admirably qualified to write a piece called "The Shame of the Graduate Schools:  A Plea for a New American Scholar."  His words written more than fifty years ago echo in those of Hanson.

An alarmingly high proportion of what is published in classics -- and in other fields -- is simply rubbish or trivia. An alarming percentage of the subsidized books published by university presses have no business being published. An alarming number of the humanistic projects which yearly receive grants, fellowships, stipends, and support are not worth supporting. They represent the commitment of a given institution or university to support the humanities, in spite of the fact that the project is palpably unsound, or doubtful, or dull.  

There is no more sickening spectacle in the modern university than that of the men whose very natures have been violated in order to suit the requirements of a system.  But the damage to scholarship is nothing in comparison to the human waste involved.  Three out of four men in academic life are the victims of this wasteful and terrible system.... Three out of four men you meet in academic life are quite simply unfulfilled.  (pp. 165, 166)

Whether it is high school, undergraduate, or graduate education, the discoveries and products of mankind are the birthright of all people to explore, to be inspired by, and to build upon.  Human beings should not be, must not be, victims of a "wasteful and terrible system."  Any education that equips a person like the man in the video above is worthy of the name.  Any that does not should stop its masquerade as education and go out of business.

How, then, do we present, as Poe once wrote, "the glories that were Greece and the grandeur that was Rome," along with all the other thoughts and discoveries and achievements in the arts and sciences produced by the human race, to our children, both young and old?  Theologian, scholar, and translator Benjamin Jowett had an idea, which he shared in the preface to his 1881 translation of Thucydides.

The voluminous learning of past ages [has] to be recast in easier and more manageable forms, and if Greek literature is not to pass away, it seems to be necessary that in every age some one who has drunk deeply from the original fountain should renew the love of it in the world, and once more present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrances of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind.

I stopped my graduate work in classics when I realized that my field and I were asking different questions.  Most in my field were exploring minutiae of philology, tracking the literary influence of one author on another, when I was asking whether what a given author said were true.  It proved to be a good choice, for it led me back to the secondary classroom, with occasional, subsequent stints at the undergraduate level.  For more than three decades I have been blessed with the opportunity to journey with students to the lands of the true, the good, and the beautiful aboard

Those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
    The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
    To his own native shore,

for truly the land of Homer and Vergil is the native land of all.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Reading God

Many people talk about biblical illiteracy today, but what about God illiteracy, our misreading of God Himself?  How do we fall into the trap of reading between the lines and seeing what is not there when it comes to God?

Professional Development

At the high school where I teach, we recently had a professional development session that focused on social skills.  Ultimately, it was about helping students discover, strengthen, and grow in their own social skills, but first we took a quick look at our own areas of strength and areas in which we are less comfortable.

Later, I discussed this with my wife, also an educator, and others, and this led to a journal entry that a friend allowed me to share.  This person is a successful adult whose childhood had its share of emotional damage.  What follows are the actual words I have permission to post in this piece.  It was based on my discussion of the professional development I described above, particularly the element of Communication, which was described in one of our slides as "Reading accurately and responding well to verbal and non-verbal cues."

Faith and Misreading God

I immediately thought of how good I have been at that stemming from strategic necessity in my youth and navigating my mother's insanity.  But as good as I have been, I must confess I sometimes get it wrong.  Take for example why I don't like it when anyone does something for me and why I hate celebrating my birthday and Christmas.  Kindness, in my experience, never comes without strings, but what if I am reading between the lines what isn't there?  What if, rather than reading people for my own protection, I simply took people straight on?  And doesn't this lie at the heart of my distrust of God?  I read Him, or rather, I read what I think are the clues about Him, but do not take Him or other people directly at their word.

And isn't this what faith is and what it means to walk by faith and not by sight?  "Traduttore, traditore"* indeed.  I translate everyone according to a system based on how to survive childhood with a severely damaged mother, but what if that is all wrong?

Jesus, this is one of my most raw and heartfelt prayers.  Remove the scales from my eyes, call me to You on the water, help my unbelief, help me to risk pain and hurt to live by faith and in so doing be healed of the deep hurts of my past.

*Traduttore, traditore is an Italian expression meaning "the translator is a traitor."

Reading Through Lenses

Certainly the professional development session at my school bore fruit beyond what its presenters intended, but let's consider something here.  Being able to read the verbal and non-verbal cues of others is crucial in maintaining strong relationships.  If I cannot see from your unusual quietness that something important is happening with you and proceed to babble on and on about some trivial excitement in my own life, I risk hurting you with insensitivity and missing an opportunity to be a true friend.  Yet I must be careful not to read between the lines what isn't there.  In literary, philosophical, and theological studies, we talk of exegesis, which is drawing meaning from a text, and try to guard against its opposite, eisegesis, which is reading something into a text.  As my friend's journal entry shows, it is entirely possible to read people incorrectly by interpreting their verbal and non-verbal cues through lenses that we have established and that may not be fitting for a given interaction.  Are we reading our cues as they are, or do we process them through a filter that will confirm our preconceived notions?

As much harm as it can cause when we read incorrectly our human relationships, how much more damage results when we misread God?  Taking God as He has presented Himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ is indeed a risk.  It involves setting aside our conceptions of Him that have been based on pain or fantasy, cold logic or wishful thinking, or even the false stories and erroneous teachings of others.  It requires setting aside the colorful lenses through which we view things, even lenses that we think help us see clearly, and viewing Him and all His creation, including other people, through the truly clear lens of faith.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Getting Lost in Our Infinite God


Astronaut Dr. David Bowman in 2001:  A Space Odyssey

Control is fun.  Starting at a young age, every one of us wants more of it over more aspects of our lives.  We begin to pick out our own clothes, decide what we want to eat, and, with our first tricycle, discover the thrill of plotting the course of our own journey.  The pangs of anxiety that come with increased control as we fret over more significant decisions like whether to ask someone out on a date or which university to choose are quickly quelled by the sheer fun of the myriad smaller acts of control that decorate our lives.  It's fun to customize our laptops with stickers and curate our own music lists online.  Sooner or later, however, we discover that the pressures of control are no longer outweighed by the joys, and the best that many hope for is to keep the pressures and joys in balance.  We play the stress of controlling our finances off against the pleasure of choosing where to go on vacation.  Yet there is something far better and far more freeing, but it requires a bit of imagination and getting lost.

The Imagination of God

God created human beings in His own image.  Jesus is the Imago Dei, the image of God in its fullness.  Part of what it means for us to be made in the image of this image-making God is that we, too, are gifted with great imaginations.  We think things up out of nothing and bring them into reality.  From Michelangelo's David to the internal combustion engine to Mozart's Requiem to the James Webb Space Telescope, we really are quite imaginative creatures, and it will take all the imagination we have to approach a certain truth about God.  He is infinite.

Aristotle says that there must be something that causes other things to move that is not itself moved by anything else, the unmoved mover (ἔστι τι ὃ οὐ κινούμενον κινεῖ, Metaphysics 12.1072a).  Think of it this way.  You are grilling hot dogs around a nice campfire, but what caused there to be fire in that particular fire pit?  You struck match and put it under a log.  But where did the log come from?  It came from the tree that had stood nearby.  Where did the tree come from?  It came from a seed.  How did the seed get there?  A bird dropped it.  Where did the bird get it, and for that matter, where did the bird come from?  You see where this is going.  At some point the whole thing gets ridiculous and you have to think, "There has to be a stopping point somewhere," and that stopping point is what Aristotle called the unmoved mover.  Picking up from Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas says this unmoved mover is God.  (Therefore it is necessary to come to some first mover that is moved by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.  Ergo necesse est devenire ad aliquod primum movens, quod a nullo movetur, et hoc omnes intelligunt DeumSumma Theologiae 1, Q2, A3)

Now kick back and just let your mind go.  What could it possibly be like, what could it possibly mean for something to exist that has no cause?  Let your mind drift.  Use a piece of art or perhaps something like the famous stargate scene in the classic film 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

"God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is" (CCC 213).  On the surface, that really doesn't make sense, but the liberating thing is that it doesn't have to.  As you begin to stretch your imagine to conceive of the inconceivable, an infinite being without beginning or end, you get lost in that notion.  You realize that you can't get your head around such a thing, much less control it, and in that moment you take your first taste of freedom.

Realizing Fatherhood

As the infomercials used to say, but wait!  There's more!  Despite having no beginning and no end, God is also personal, which is to say, He is a person.  No, He is not human, but what it means to be a human person comes from the personhood of God, and if that still sounds a bit too abstract, God is our Father.  What follows is something I journaled recently after pondering the identity of God.

When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and says, "I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob," and then reveals his name as YHWH, "I Am," He is truly inviting us into an infinitely larger reality, identity, and relationship than the mud-hut-dwelling, dirt-scratching experience of life and family that we have known with our blood relatives.  What would life be like if we look up from our meagre existence and truly saw our Father and knew we were His?

You may think my description of earthly, familial relationships is harsh and inaccurate, but consider that the largest mansion and the smallest mobile home are essentially the same thing.  They are both boxes made of stuff from the earth in which people sleep and eat.  And just as we must scratch the dirt with hands or tools in order to draw anything of value from it for sustenance, so we often face hard, emotionally backbreaking challenges to interact with family members in order to bring forth the joys of familial life we all know are available.  

So, I'll ask again.  What would your life look like if you raised your eyes from the problems and hassles that beset you on a daily basis and became lost in the life of your infinite Father, the one who loves you beyond what you or I could ever define the word "love" to mean?

Monday, June 26, 2023

Faith and Complex Greek Words

Which is the more difficult word, "love" or "antidisestablishmentarianism?"  At first glance, many would say the latter, but that is because long, multisyllabic words seem scary.  When you get right down to it, "antidisestablishmentarianism" is easy to break down into its etymological roots, and the definition is quite narrow and specific.  It means the belief that a church that has received government support should continue to do so and should not be disestablished.  "Love," on the other hand, is a word applied to a romantic interest, a favorite type of pizza, devotion to one's country, and the driving force behind the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Through constant use and familiarity, it has taken on so many meanings as to be nearly meaningless, and the same is true of another common word, "faith."  It has come to have a sort wispy sense, something light and delicate and otherworldly, but, as we will see, it is a concrete, robust word capable of supporting the massive edifice of a human life.

Etymology and Theology

Trinity, Andrei Rublev, 1425

Hebrews 11:1 is a well known verse that states in the King James Version, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  The Greek word translated substance is ὑπόστασις (hypostasis), which breaks down into two parts meaning to stand beneath.  The English word "substance" is itself little more than a transliteration of the Latin word used in the Vulgate translation substantia, which means the same thing as the Greek.  The light may be starting to dawn for you as you think, "How nice!  Faith is that which stands beneath my hopes.  It is the foundation on which hope is built."  If you stopped here, you would certainly be blessed with a good understanding.  Hope indeed is not merely a fanciful wish, but something with a strong foundation, but as infomercials on late-night television used to say, "But wait!  There's more!"

That Greek word hypostasis took on new meaning in the fourth century A.D. with the Cappodocian Fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen.  Their thinking, along with the Holy Spirit-led work at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, led to a phrase that summarizes the orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity, μία οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις (mia ousia, treis hypostaseis), a phrase that is typically translated, "one being/essence, three persons."  In Christian theology, the idea of hypostasis goes beyond that which stands beneath.  It contains more than the notion of a foundation.  Hypostasis expresses the very idea of God the Father qua Father, God the Son qua Son, and God the Holy Spirit qua Spirit.

Look again at Hebrews 11:1.  Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for.  Suddenly we see something real about faith, taking "real" in the literal sense from its Latin root res, meaning "thing."  When something has been realized or has become real, it has been "thingified."  It is more than just an abstract thought.  Faith is not fancy, but the real foundation of hope, as real as the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

Etymology and Philosophy

The second half of that verse expands on this idea by stating that faith is the evidence of things not seen.  The word translated "evidence" is ἔλεγχος (elenchos), and any student of philosophy in general or Socrates in particular will know that this word carries a lot of freight.  Most commonly seen in its latinized spelling, elenchus is the method by which Socrates would test the ideas of others in an effort to find the truth.  It involved the vigorous back-and-forth discussion that we find in the dialogues of Plato, dialogues that were in essence a verbal crucible in which the dross of falsehood was burned away until only the pure truth of a matter remained.

This is what faith is, according to Hebrews 11:1.  It is the unsparing process that arrives at truth, even when that truth cannot be grasped by the physical senses.  

Putting It All Together

Faith is something robust and vigorous.  It is solid and alive.  Because it is hypostasis and elenchos, it is capable of supporting hope and indeed our very lives.  Foundations, of course, can be composed of many materials, so the real question is about what our faith is made of.  The kind of faith that Hebrews 11:1 is referring to is the kind best described in the words of the 1834 hymn by Edward Mote.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Whitesnake and Jeopardy: Bellwethers of Biblical Literacy?


In 1982 a British hard rock band released its fifth album, and in 2023, the television game show Jeopardy! aired the latest of its more than eight thousand episodes.  What could either of these possibly have in common?  They each have something to say about contemporary biblical literacy.

Less Than Subtle

David Coverdale formed Whitesnake in 1978 following the breakup of the legendary Deep Purple in 1976.  Even before this group became MTV darlings in the late '80s as they led the hair metal charge through a cloud of Aqua Net, they were a well established, bluesy, hard rock outfit with a fair amount of success around the world.  What they were not was subtle.  The closest their often sex-drenched lyrics came to nuance was the frequent wink-wink, nudge-nudge of the double entendre. 

In 1982 Whitesnake released their fifth album, Saints & Sinners, and the title track contains some interesting lines.  The song opens with,

Get ready for Judgement Day
And the final curtain call
Don't lie when you testify
'Cause the Good Lord knows you're all

Saints an' sinners, priests an' thieves
Saints an' sinners, priests an' thieves

When Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
Laying the law on the line,
He said, "Don't come knockin' at the Pearly Gates
If you all you did was have a real good time."

Later in the song we get the refrain, "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful."

Whitesnake could never be confused with a Christian band like for King & Country, so what on earth are lyrics like these doing in one of their songs?  They make for reasonably good rock lyrics, but notice what in 1982 Coverdale could reasonably assume his audience would understand:  a reference to the Christian expectation of an event commonly referred to as Judgment Day; the Christian expectation of a final accounting at that time when all must testify about their lives; a reference to the Old Testament figure Moses; the connection between Moses and the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew law; the location of Moses at the Red Sea as he led the Israelites out of bondage; and the Pearly Gates, a phrase long used as synecdoche to refer to Heaven itself.  This last is based on Revelation 21:21 in which the twelve gates of Heaven are made of pearls.  As for the prayer, it is from the Church of England and was once common throughout British schools.

I have no idea whether David Coverdale was attempting to infuse Christian doctrine into his lyrics in an attempt at subtle evangelism, but what is undeniable is that he confidently assumed his audience would get the references.  These were in the lyrics to his new album's title song, and this savvy entertainer was not about to fill that song with obscure references that no one would understand.

Blank Stares for 200

On Tuesday, June 13, 2023 the television game show Jeopardy! sparked a minor furor across social media as all three contestants failed to answer a question.  They did not get it wrong.  They simply could not answer at all.

The clue read, "Matthew 6:9 says 'Our Father which art in heaven', this 'be thy name.'"  Social media was quickly inflamed with those who could not believe that not one of the contestants knew that the missing word was "hallowed."  Even atheists weighed in to say that they would have known the answer.

What's Going On?

I can hear some of the responses now.  "That's from the King James Version, which was published in 1611.  There's no need to know something that old today."  "It doesn't matter whether someone knows the words of the Bible.  What matters is being kind to people."  Setting aside the poor reasoning of such responses for now, let's consider what may be going on with these two examples.  Why was a hard rock musician in 1982 able to write a lyric with multiple, biblical references that he could expect his audience to understand, and why were these three contestants on a game show based on wide-ranging knowledge unable to answer a biblical question in 2023?  To be fair, these are not perfectly comparable, and I am not citing hard research on biblical literacy from either era, but it may be they are indicators of what is going on in education.

Simply put, we have been moving away from requiring students to know factual knowledge for some time.  We decry methods of direct instruction as "drill and kill" and malign the lecture as being forced onto students from "the sage on the stage," even as we promote the model of the teacher as "the guide on the side."  We advocate for the teaching of higher level thinking skills and relegate factual knowledge to that which can easily be accessed online, and there are reasons for this.

It is indeed a missed opportunity if, in the presence of bright, developing minds, we never move beyond factual knowledge to the more abstract realms of speculation, but we are doing an equal disservice if we jump too early to the latter and stay there to the exclusion of the former.  We often do this because we teachers enjoy the higher, abstract, deep levels of engagement.  We don't want to focus on basic math facts and grammar when there are the delights of advanced science and poetry to explore.  We also want to avoid requiring students to know discrete facts because this usually requires study and memorization, and in a world in which there are significant challenges to these practices through familial and cultural forces, we want to do anything and everything to mitigate academic failure and promote success.  And finally, if I may be so blunt and bold, we teachers who must support our own families are unwilling to trust our financial livelihoods to the scores of students on tests.  It is far easier to create a smokescreen of inquiry-based projects and critical thinking so that no one can really hold anyone accountable for anything.

What Now?

Some of these are issues to be addressed by educators, but the particular matter of biblical literacy rests squarely on parents and church leaders.  If we parents are deferring our calling and responsibility to equip our children in the faith to church leaders alone, we are derelict in our duty.  If church leaders are mostly focused on growing the numbers of children and youth in the church or building relationships among them, they are derelict in their duty.  In Paul's second letter to Timothy, he says of the young man, "from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."  What will it take, not to get to the point where most people could handle a sermon by the likes of St. Augustine or St. Chrysostom as they did in the fourth and fifth centuries, but merely to the point where even the audience at a hard rock concert would know what was being talked about?

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Speech, A Poem, and The Beauty of Language


Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 B.C.

While cleaning out some things at my mom's house, I ran across something she had saved from my freshman year at Indiana University.  Apparently I had written a poem about a speech we had read in our Cicero class, and my dad had typed it up.  What could have prompted a young man of eighteen to compose on such a topic?  The answer can be found in 374 words.

A Speech and a Poem

My first Latin class at IU was a 300-level course in Cicero taught by Betty Rose Nagle, about whom I have written here, here, and here.  Among the pieces we read that semester was Cicero's Pro Milone, a speech in defense of Titus Annius Milo that he delivered in 52 B.C.  I had read some Cicero in my Latin III class in high school and was already in a bit of awe over his command of the language, but one sentence in that undergraduate class took my breath away.  I couldn't leave it alone, and so I ended up writing a poem about it.

We often talk in our upper level Latin classes about the various benefits of literature, one of which is that literary works, like works of art of music, can capture moments for us.  The artistic efforts of another can express for us the deepest emotions for which we do not possess the words.  What follows is a young man's attempt to capture in his own words something that had so captivated his mind.  It is not a good poem, borrowing too heavily on the lines by Chapman that it references and too filled with the gushing emotion of a teenager, but the poem itself is not what is important here, but rather what inspired it.

374 Words

Cicero is famous for his periodic sentences, seemingly interminable constructions filled to the brim with parallelism and subordinate clauses.  One can get lost just trying to find the main verb.  Although this is not the style preferred today, and many teachers would likely pull out the red pen to suggest that one of his creations was in fact a run-on, when you work through a sentence like this and see the incredible balance of word against word, clause against clause, and the ebb and flow of intensity of thought, you cannot help but be amazed at its construction.  Think of the feeling you had when standing in the grandest building and marveling at both its architecture and the effort of its assembly.  Here was the sentence that inspired me as an undergraduate freshman.

De qua, si iam nollem ita diluere crimen, ut dilui, tamen impune Miloni palam clamare ac mentiri gloriose liceret: "Occidi, occidi, non Sp. Maelium, qui annona levanda iacturisque rei familiaris, quia nimis amplecti plebem videbatur, in suspicionem incidit regni appetendi; non Ti. Gracchum, qui conlegae magistratum per seditionem abrogavit, quorum interfectores impleverunt orbem terrarum nominis sui gloria; sed eum—auderet enim dicere, cum patriam periculo suo liberasset—cuius nefandum adulterium in pulvinaribus sanctissimis nobilissimae feminae comprehenderunt; eum cuius supplicio senatus sollemnis religiones expiandas saepe censuit—eum quem cum sorore germana nefarium stuprum fecisse L. Lucullus iuratus se quaestionibus habitis dixit comperisse; eum qui civem quem senatus, quem populus Romanus, quem omnes gentes urbis ac vitae civium conservatorem iudicarant, servorum armis exterminavit; eum qui regna dedit, ademit, orbem terrarum quibuscum voluit partitus est; eum qui, plurimis caedibus in foro factis, singulari virtute et gloria civem domum vi et armis compulit; eum cui nihil umquam nefas fuit, nec in facinore nec in libidine; eum qui aedem Nympharum incendit, ut memoriam publicam recensionis tabulis publicis impressam exstingueret; eum denique, cui iam nulla lex erat, nullum civile ius, nulli possessionum termini; qui non calumnia litium, non iniustis vindiciis ac sacramentis alienos fundos, sed castris, exercitu, signis inferendis petebat; qui non solum Etruscos—eos enim penitus contempserat—sed hunc P. Varium, fortissimum atque optimum civem, iudicem nostrum, pellere possessionibus armis castrisque conatus est; qui cum architectis et decempedis villas multorum hortosque peragrabat; qui Ianiculo et Alpibus spem possessionum terminarat suarum; qui, cum ab equite Romano splendido et forti, M. Paconio, non impetrasset ut sibi insulam in lacu Prilio venderet, repente luntribus in eam insulam materiem, calcem, caementa, arma convexit, dominoque trans ripam inspectante, non dubitavit exstruere aedificium in alieno; qui huic T. Furfanio,—cui viro, di immortales! (quid enim ego de muliercula Scantia, quid de adulescente P. Apinio dicam? quorum utrique mortem est minitatus, nisi sibi hortorum possessione cessissent),—sed ausum esse Furfanio dicere, si sibi pecuniam, quantam poposcerat, non dedisset, mortuum se in domum eius inlaturum, qua invidia huic esset tali viro conflagrandum; qui Appium fratrem, hominem mihi coniunctum fidissima gratia, absentem de possessione fundi deiecit; qui parietem sic per vestibulum sororis instituit ducere, sic agere fundamenta, ut sororem non modo vestibulo privaret, sed omni aditu et limine."  (Pro Milone, 27.72-75)

Let your eyes scan that block of text.  It is comprised of 374 words, contains numerous historical allusions, tricola, anaphora, asyndeton, and more.  The translation by Michael Grant for the Penguin edition breaks this one, periodic sentence in Latin into twenty-two English sentences across three and a half paragraphs.

You may or may not like Cicero's philosophy.  You may or may not like his politics.  You may or may not enjoy his style of oratory.  Regardless where one stands on the content of his words, any fair reading must surely leave a person willing to acknowledge his matchless command of the language.

After finding this poem from long ago, I looked up the sentence that inspired it in the edition I still have from that class.  It contains my penciled notes in the margins, including the notation that this part of the speech is an example of prosopoeia, which my marginalia define as "putting words in Milo's mouth."  Apart from this being a trip down my own, personal, memory lane, it prompts a question.  What turns of a phrase in a favorite book or poem, what individual sentences, what whole paragraphs or stanzas, leave you breathless not only for their content, but their form as well?

Those interested in the meaning of Cicero's sentence can find a translation here.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Paul and the Courtroom

At the suggestion of my principal and thanks to the incredible response from colleagues and parents to an email I sent, I am sharing here the story of a friend of mine and how it affected some of my students.

The Crime

A few years ago, my friend Paul was driving with his son.  After they passed a car on the road, the driver of that car pursued them in a fit of road rage and brandished a gun.  No one was hurt, and my friend and his son got away safely, but they were shaken nonetheless.

The Trial

Yesterday, my friend texted several of us to say that the court date had finally arrived.  He asked for prayer, but not for the reason you might expect.

Paul's text:  Part of the agreement that I made was that I get to make a "victim's statement."  I intend to talk about God's forgiveness and my relationship with Jesus Christ.  Please pray that I do so with boldness, authority, and with grace.  Please pray that it would be well received and that it would penetrate hearts in the courtroom.

I am sure there are many of us who claim to follow Jesus who would not have taken that approach.  We would have been glad that an ugly chapter of life was behind us and we may have prayed for the perpetrator, but I doubt that any great number of us would have seen the court date as an opportunity to evangelize, but that is who Paul is.  No, he is not an evangelist by trade, but he certainly is one by calling, and not long after his first text, we received another.

Second text:  Well, it's over.  I got to say my thing.  I told the defendant, in the presence of the judge, all the attorneys, and all the people in the court, that because of my relationship with God, I am commanded to forgive when I am wronged, and that I forgive him for what he did.  I then challenged him by telling him that there is brokenness in him.  After all, who pulls a gun on someone simply because they pass them on the road?  I told him that I understood his predicament because I, too, was once a broken man.  But through a relationship with Jesus Christ, I was able to address the brokenness in my life and find peace.  And I wished him that he would find that same peace.  You could hear a pin drop in the courtroom.  When we walked out, the prosecuting attorney told me that I had spoken well, but she was surprised at the "religious context" of my speech.  She said it's not something we usually do.  She then volunteered the information that she is a Muslim.  I told her that as a Muslim, surely she would understand the impact of forgiveness and peace.  She said she did.  And then, amazingly, she asked me to keep her in my prayers!

The Classroom

Deacon Rick Wagner is the president of the school where I teach, and he is big on stories.  He is always talking with students and faculty about the importance of sharing stories as a way to share the gospel, which of course is exactly what Jesus did.  My class of Latin III students was in session when I received the texts from my friend.  Ordinarily I would have ignored my phone's vibrations, but they were preparing independently for finals, so I read them, and once I had, I had to interrupt my students in their work.  I simply had to share what friend Paul had done in that courtroom.  When I had finished reading the texts, one of my students said, "Plaudite omnes," which is Latin for "everyone, applaud."  It is something I often say when a student has done or said something extraordinary, and this young man thought it the appropriate thing to say in that moment.  The rest of his classmates must have agreed, for they all began to clap.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Custom-Made Education


The ad verecundiam fallacy comes up when we claim something is true solely on the grounds that someone who is not an authority says it is true.  This fallacy underlies much celebrity-based advertisement and it is why I am not inclined to accept uncritically the ideas of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or even those who sit on boards and committees of education.  Yet a good friend sent me this video of Musk's thoughts on education, and after watching it I couldn't stop pondering what he had to say.


Musk's approach to education is not to front load terminology and the foundational facts of a subject, but rather to set up situations in which students can explore and discover the things to be learned.  There is nothing new in this, and we have a term for it:  inductive learning.  Using an automotive example, he argues for introducing students to an engine and then, when they have to take it apart and are searching for the best way to do it, introducing them to the concept of the wrench.

There is much appeal to this approach, and we all use it at one time or another.  There was a time when I didn't know the difference between a Roman Ogee and a Roman O.G.

As I did more wood working in my garage, I eventually learned the name for the router bit that makes such an elegant curve along with all sorts of skills involving table saws, scroll saws, and more.  I learned what I needed when I needed it.  I moved at my own pace and gained much from trial and error, and this is precisely why Musk advocates for this style of learning.

There are, however, key requirements for this to be a successful method of education, including both the interest and the disposition to learn, but the two I want to focus on here are time and size.  "Had we but world enough and time," wrote Andrew Marvell in "To His Coy Mistress," there would be no rush in romantic affairs and, I would add, in educational ones as well.  As I have developed my woodworking skills over the years, I have labored under no time pressure, and this has given me the space to make mistakes and to learn from them.  As for setting an engine in front of a group of students and allowing them to discover the need for something like a wrench, a low student-to-teacher ratio is not merely important, it is essential.


In the fall of 2021, there were approximately 49.5 million preK-12 students enrolled in public schools, which of course says nothing about the number of students in private, hybrid, and homeschool models.  Although these tens of millions of students are not evenly distributed across the country, thus creating some schools with very large enrollments and some with very small, the need is simply too great for each and every one of these students to participate in an inductive, discovery-based model of learning in all areas.  Let us be clear.  This does not mean that such a method cannot work at all in larger schools.  It may be well suited to certain subjects or certain units within certain subjects, but the time and low student-to-teacher ratio necessary for the success of this model cannot be obtained in the schooling of nearly 50 million children across twelve or more years in reading, writing fiction, writing nonfiction, earth science, biology, anatomy, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus, Latin, Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, choir, band, orchestra, 2-D art, 3-D art, coding, and the nearly endless list of curricular offerings.

When I say that time constraints and human ratios are of necessary importance for this model, I mean that unless they are gotten right, the model will not work.  Let's start with time.  We continue to find ways for time not to be an obstacle to learning, but in a large school setting, we simply cannot serve the time needs of each and every student.  Student A may need more time to grasp a concept, but Student A cannot remain in the classroom of Teacher X to do so if Student A is required to be present in another class and if Teacher X must likewise teach another group of students.  However much we are able to accommodate the time needs of Student A, and perhaps even Students B through G, we will come to a point where practicality sets in and we will not be able to meet the need for Student H.

This challenge is a function of the other necessary factor at work here, student-teacher-ratios.  Most schools are limited in the number of teachers they can employ.  To reach a workable student-teacher-ratio for the model Musk describes, a ratio that will differ depending on the subject and needs of the students, far more money would be required than even the most ardent supporter of school funding considers, for not only would more teachers need to be hired, but there would have to be significant increase in building space in which teaching and learning would be done.  To educate 50 million children across fifty states from more than twelve years, practical forces, unlikeable though some may be, shape what we can and cannot do, and those forces have brought about the form of education that most people think of when they consider education at all, a form that can seem more like an assembly line of mass-produced parts than a hand-crafted work of art.

Salad Bowls and Melting Pots

My wife, an educator with more than thirty years of experience in the classroom and in administration within a variety of public, private, and hybrid models, is fond of saying that things are "both-and" and not "either-or."  As I referenced earlier, there are traditional, public school models of education in our country alongside private, hybrid, and homeschool models.  Some are better for some students, others work better for others, and there is no reason they cannot all sit side by side.  The entrepreneurial spirit that has been so much a part of the United States since its inception must surely celebrate this.  At the same time, even when practical factors within a large school setting limit some of what can be done, they do not limit all, and it is not only possible but in fact takes place every day in classrooms led by the best teachers that students learn from blended experiences that make excellent use of deductive and inductive education.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly: The Whys and Hows of Translation

St. Jerome Translating the Bible


They say that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and since I am working on my own translation of Vergil's Aeneid, it may be ill advised for me to offer the scathing critique I am about to put forth here.  On the other hand, sometimes a child needs to shout, "The emperor isn't wearing any clothes!"

The Whys of Translation

Why do we translate words from one language into another?  The most obvious reason is to make ideas in one language accessible to those who cannot understand that language.  There are innumerable ideas in poetry, philosophy, theology, history, science, mathematics, law, and all types of literature that people want to share and explore, and it is not possible or reasonable for everyone who is interested in those ideas to become conversant in the languages in which they were originally written.  A person may master several languages, but even the most multilingual among us will be not be literate in all of them.

Another reason to translate is because translation itself is enjoyable and can be a work of art per se.  The King James translation of the Bible is widely acknowledged as one of the most elegant works in English, and even though Richard Bentley did not think Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad was up to the mark, he conceded that it was "a pretty poem."  My own efforts to translate the Aeneid are akin to climbing K2.  There certainly is no need of another English Aeneid, for we have a full one hundred since the first in 1513.  I simply want to do it.  I have no delusion that mine could sit on the same high shelf as that of Dryden or Fitzgerald, but I have more fun translating than working the New York Times crossword, and the Aeneid is a really good story.   

The Hows of Translation

How does one go about translating a work from one language into another?  A blog post is not the place to work through the ins and outs of translation theories, and they can drive a person close to insanity.  Do I translate word for word?  Even then, what does that mean?  If a word means a canine animal, should I write "dog" or should I choose "puppy?"  Must I keep the words in the same order as the original?  There may be a particular sense expressed in that order, but when it is retained in English the result may sound like something from Yoda.  

This takes us back to the first reason for translation.  One method, or at least its results, may become outdated.  For all its beauty, the King James translation of the Bible can be downright unintelligible to some today.  It was published in 1611, and more than a few things have changed about English between then and the 21st century, hence the offering of sixty-two English versions on

And this leads us to the translation that I want to discuss here.

One That Cruncketh in Howling

A good friend recently emailed me a blurb about Scot McKnight's forthcoming translation of the New Testament.  After a brief glance at the preview, I replied that it might be the most godawful thing I had ever seen.  It reminded me almost immediately of one of the most mocked and reviled works in all of English translation, the 1582 attempt at the Aeneid by Richard Stanyhurst.  Filled with grotesqueries like "her burial roundel dooth ruck, and cruncketh in howling," his efforts to produce English quantitative poetry like that of the Romans forced him into infelicities of expression and the use and spelling of words not current in his time.  One of his phrases, however, could be used to describe what we have with McKnight's work, "darcklye bemuffled."

McKnight says of his guiding principle in translation, "The basic theory at work in this translation can be summed up in these words: literal, chunky, sounds-more-like-Greek than standard translations (nothing against them), transliteration of names and places (like The First Testament), and somewhat disruptive for those who are familiar with their Bibles."  Let's take a look at what this means.

Matthew 1:18

The genesis of Yēsous Christos was this: His mother, Maria, being engaged to Yōsēf, before they had assembled . . . she was found having a child in her womb of the Holy Spirit. 

McKnight has transliterated the names from Greek into English letters, just as he said, and he held more closely to the Greek word order and syntax than most English versions, but to what end?  The verb he translates as "assembled" is συνελθεῖν, which means any of the following:  come together, assemble, meet, have dealings with, be united.  Regardless of the theology you hold on the relationship between Mary and Joseph, "assembled" is simply ridiculous here.  Why not say "came together?"  "Assembled" has too many connotations in 2023 that just don't work in this instance.  We use the word to describe putting together a child's toy on Christmas Eve or the coming together of a group of people.  We do not use it to describe any action performed by only two.

Matthew 2:8

Whenever you find, declare to me so I also, going, may bow down to him.

The odd syntax here is quite common in Greek and Latin.  The present participle "going" that modifies the pronoun "I" is usually rendered into some sort of clause in English, like "so I also may go and bow down."  Keeping the Greek syntax in English reminds me of the famous story, often attributed to Churchill, about the man who was challenged on the correctness of his speech when he said, "That is something I won't put up with."  The rule was often taught not to end a sentence with a preposition, so the man showed the absurdity of that by replying, "That is something up with which I will not put."  Does McKnight's rendering follow accepted rules of English grammar?  It does, but at the cost of wrenched and jarring syntax.

You may have thought I misquoted his line, for the expression "whenever you find" seems to want a direct object.  Both Latin and Greek are okay with this, but English is not.  The King James committee that published the Authorized Version in 1611 was so scrupulous as to put in italics words not in the original languages but that were necessary for English sense.  Those translators rendered this as "and when ye have found him."  I cannot see such torturing of English to imitate Greek as yielding anything other than frustration on the part of the reader.

Matthew 3:1, 13-14

In those days Yōannēs the Dipper [John the Baptist] arrives announcing in the wilderness of Youdaias....  Then Yēsous arrives at the Yordanēs from the Galilaia [Galilee] to Yōannēs to be dipped by him.  But Yōannēs was preventing him, saying, “I have a need to be dipped by you, and come to me?”

The use of the present tense "arrives" in these verses is accurate and could even be justified in its retention if the effort is to make the narrative vivid.  The historical present does just that.  But referring to John the Baptist as Yōannēs the Dipper is beyond absurd.  Actually, it may only be absurd.  Making John say, "I have a need to be dipped by you" is beyond absurd.

The root verb of "dipper" and "dipped" in this translation is βαπτίζειν, a word meaning such things as "to plunge," "to be drowned," "to dip," and "to dye."  Whichever definition you choose, you will be setting up a theological debate about baptism by sprinkling or immersion, but that is not the problem here.  "Yōannēs the Dipper" simply sounds ridiculous, and while that may not sound like much of an objection, it is.  When we use the word "Dipper" in its capitalized form in English, it invariably calls to mind the constellation called The Big Dipper.  The phrase "John the Dipper" cannot help but summon images of Jack the Ripper, a rhyming phrase of the same number of syllables and the same rhythm.  However accurate the word "dip" may be in this context, it carries too much other freight to be effective here.  As for "I have a need to be dipped by you, and come to me," I can only assume this is a typo, since the Greek verb for "come" is not only second person singular, "you" in English, but even includes the second person pronoun σὺ, as if to emphasize "you."

You can read most of McKnight's translation of Matthew here, but you get the idea.  So, why am I displeased with this work?  It has to do with the reason McKnight had for translating.  He says on his website, "Yes, I use some nonstandard translations of terms with which we are so familiar we don’t even see the words! Our prayer is this translation will slow readers down to hear the NT afresh."  This is a laudable goal, one more worthy than my own of mere personal pleasure in the act of translation.  Unfortunately, this translation misses the mark.  The effort to be "literal," "chunky," and "more-like-Greek" has resulted in English that at times is merely awkward and at others nearly unreadable.  If the goal is to slow readers down with a Greek-like translation so they can consider afresh passages that have grown dull through familiarity, there is a better way to go.  Interested readers can learn Greek.  The Greek-like version of McKnight is more akin to the odd and stilted translationese of the secondary or undergraduate language classroom.

One blurb on McKnight's website reads, "Scot McKnight's translation of the New Testament takes us into the very world of Jesus and the apostles; it breathes the air of antiquity. Rather than try to make the New Testament too familiar, McKnight makes it sound foreign, like a distant land you are hearing about for the first time. The Second Testament is a monumental literary achievement that will enrich and excite readers for generations."  Why?  Why would we want an ancient work in modern language that sounds ancient?  First of all, the perceived oddness in the target language is not at all what first century audiences would have taken from the New Testament writings.  Read a passage from McKnight's translation of Matthew and you will experience jarring strangeness.  A first-century, Greek-literate person reading that same work in the Greek that Matthew wrote would have experienced ease and familiarity, at least with the style of writing.  The content, on the other hand, is jarring in the extreme, but that comes from the power of what Jesus had to say.  The message is already challenging.  What benefit is there to reading it in the "air of antiquity," especially when the message bore no such antiquity in the period when it was written?

What made Richard Stanyhurst's 16th century English translation of the Aeneid so execrable was that he was attempting to write in English quantitative meter.  Simply put, the quantitative meter of Homer's Greek and Vergil's Latin is based on long and short syllables, a system that does not exist in English, the poetry of which is often based on accent.  By forcing the English language into the syntax of ancient Greek, McKnight has unfortunately proven what Jesus described with another metaphor.  "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins.  If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed.  But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved,"  (Matthew 9:17, ESV).

If the goal had been to play with the form of languages and experiment as a jazz musician might do, then we could look upon this with a degree of interest.  Since the stated purpose, however, was to draw people into a fresh encounter with the word of God, this version must be seen as one that only darkens the glass through which we are hoping to see.