Fundamentalism and Secularism

From my article ‘Gnosticism in the Workplace

Viewing the physical order as spiritually neutral can lead to the “seeker-friendly” posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the “‘relevance to’ paradigm” of adaptation) or to the more “fundamentalist” and “pietist” posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, film, economics, literature, architecture, education, fashion design, gardening, and the media become “secular” by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and the accommodation of the “seeker-friendly” posture is whether one should retreat from this “secular order” or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are often tempted to the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life—including our Monday through Saturday jobs—becomes the chief casualty of this dualistic posture.

Keep Reading…

The First Steps Towards an Appreciation of Liberal Arts

From my Touchstone article “More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts

cover-26-05Appreciating that some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts. The best argument for teaching children to love Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Hopkins is simply that these authors wrote things that are beautiful. Just as the best reason for smelling a rose is that it has a lovely fragrance, so the best reason for learning Latin is that Virgil’s Aeneid is beautiful. Again, the template for this approach is creation itself.

Christian worldview education is in danger of being hijacked by pragmatists who think that non-utilitarian approaches somehow depart from the imperative to bring all things under Christ. This is ironic since the Bible itself reveals a better way….

The exclusively pragmatic approach does a particularly great disservice to the teaching of literature since it orients us to adopt a didactic and utilitarian approach to texts. We may start to think that the value of a text lies in the worldview lessons we are able to draw out of it and completely overlook the aesthetic considerations. Many, for instance, have the idea that the primary purpose of learning Shakespeare is to understand allusions and figures of speech, or that memorizing poems is mainly good as an exercise to develop memory skills, or that the value of learning Latin is to understand word origins, and so forth. The idea that learning Virgil in the original Latin has a value not tied to any practical benefit strikes them as odd.

When students are trained to think in strictly pragmatic ways, they will find it difficult to enjoy, say, a Shakespeare play if they can’t derive a specific worldview lesson from it. They may become so over-active in finding worldview lessons that they discern some Shakespeare never intended. How much better it would be to get them to enjoy Shakespeare plays simply for their masterly use of language and compelling plots and characters. How much better for students to come to love things that are noble and praiseworthy even when they do not have a specific use. As Flannery O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners, “The fact is, people don’t know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as so many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something.”

How Reading Stories Can Make us Wise

From ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith

One of the important functions of story is that it allows us to vicariously participate in experiences that are not our own, and to gain wisdom as a result. A great story—whether in a novel or a movie—takes us on a journey. If the creator has done a skillful job, the journey becomes our journey, and we feel like we are really there. In the case of a good film, it can engage the emotions so skillfully that we actually have the same visceral response as we would if the events on the screen were actually happening. Our body actually experiences the physical symptoms associated with awe, terror, sadness, suspense, joy, confusion, etc. The physical response means that we have entered into the story and, on one important level, it is happening to us.

I’m not talking about shallow stories that simply manipulate our emotions, but stories that move us because the journey they take us on is so vivid that it feels like we’re really there. In the process of making the journey with the characters in the movie or book, we are able to grow in wisdom, in a way similar to what would happen if we were really having those experiences. Through story we can participate in the same experiential value that we would have if we lived those experiences ourselves.

Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.

The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?

Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself.

Series on Nominalism

I’ve been publishing some articles with the Colson Centre dealing with the debates between the medieval nominalists and realists, looking at the relevance these debates have for issues in contemporary culture.

Throughout this series I hope to show that these seemingly archaic philosophical distinctions are actually of profound practical significance for how we understand our world today, in everything from sex to food.To read these articles, click on the following links: