Tag Archives: English Lit

On Humanism (and why writers should care)

Literature_MarkosI’ve been reading a great little book – Literature: A Student’s Guide. It’s part of a series of small books from Crossway publishers. This volume was written by Dr. Louis Markos, an English professor at a Christian university.

I don’t think I’ve correctly understood what humanism is until I’ve read this book. Without thinking too deeply about it, I’ve assumed it’s something to be avoided entirely because I’m a Christian. I’ve assumed it’s just another way of saying “live for yourself.”

Dr. Markos has written some helpful and hopeful thoughts, however. They are hopeful for writers (Christian or not) who want to truthfully and wholly express the human experience. And what writer doesn’t want to do that?

Here’s an excerpt from pages 65 and 66:

“But please remember that the “enemy” of Christianity – I prefer to use the phrase “competing worldview” – is not humanism per se, but secular humanism. One can just as well be a Christian humanist (like Dante, Donne, Milton, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis) as a secular humanist (like Marx, Freud, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins).

A humanist is not someone who rejects God or the Christian revelation, but one who believes that man is a free and rational creature – one who possesses innate dignity and value, and whose life and achievements on the earth are of intrinsic and last worth. A humanist believes in the power of human reason and creativity to shape and change the world and the importance of preserving a record, in various mediums, of those shapings and changes. A humanist  believes, to borrow a key humanist phrase, that “the proper study of man is man,” not because God is unimportant or irrelevant but because man’s innate dignity demands such attention. Such humanist beliefs are not, I would argue, inconsistent with Christianity; to the contrary, I would assert that the only true humanist is the Christian (or at least theistic) humanist. If the secular humanists are correct and man is merely the product of undirected time and chance, then he is certainly not worth the attention that the secular humanists lavish on him; but if we are, as the Bible teaches, creatures made in the image of God, then our hopes and fears and desires are supremely worth studying and preserving. Further, if the God who created us thought us of enough value to become one of us and to die for us, then who are we to dismiss man as a poor forked animal evolved out of primordial slime and destined only for extinction?

no one can be a true student of literature unless he is a humanist.* If you reject the notion that man is the proper study of man, and that the things man creates are of value and worth preserving, then why study literature at all? From it you will learn nothing “practical”; it won’t put money in your purse or bread on your table. But from it you will learn to understand yourself and the human race better. You will earn the privilege and the right to participate in the flow of human ideas and to grapple with the major expressions of the human imagination. You will be invited to join the great conversation! No, such a study will not put you back into a right relationship with God (only Christ can do that), but it will help to shape you into a good and noble citizen who seeks both to enrich your society without and to fulfill within the Socratic mandate: Know Thyself.”

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Thank You, F. Scott Fitzgerald

editing, writing, novelist, writer's groupAn author I know sent me an email that said only this: “I’m glad F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t reading my book.” He included this link

It’s a letter written by the famous novelist to an aspiring writer. Fitzgerald pulls no punches in his critique of her work. It’s a pretty sound criticism. If I’d received a letter like this from a noted novelist today I’d undoubtedly be crushed. Here’s an excerpt from the body of the letter:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission.

What Fitzgerald said, “You’ve got to sell your heart,” inspired me rather than scared me. As I work through the ‘goblin project’ I’ll be thinking of this letter. Do I really sell my hearts on the page? Am I breathing all I have into the writing? Am I willing to make myself that vulnerable for the sake of the story? Am I willing to pay “the price of admission”?

I don’t know the answers to all of those questions yet, but I’m sure glad F. Scott Fitzgerald raised them. I read through one of the large action sequences of the goblin project last night. It was okay. I’m proud of it. I’ll gladly seek the critique of my friends and fellow writers. But I don’t think I’ve totally ‘sold my heart yet.’ I want the reader to be on the edge of their seat in the sequence. I want the characters to convey the same fear of uncertainty and/or death that I’ve felt at other times. I’m just not sure I’ve got it quite right yet, but Fitzgerald’s letter has reminded me how important it is.

Thanks, Fitz.

8 Books recommended by the Library of Congress

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I recently visited an exhibit at the Library of Congress called “Books that Shaped America.” I thought it would be interesting to clarify what it means for a book to “shape America.” Here’s an excerpt from the Library of Congress website:

The titles featured [in the exhibit] have had a profound effect on American life, but they are by no means the only influential ones. And they are certainly not a list of the “best” American books, because that…is a matter of strong and diverse opinion. Curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress contributed their choices, but there was much debate—even agony—in having to remove worthy titles from a much larger list in order to accommodate the physical constraints of this exhibition space.

Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States.

Harriet Beecher StoweWhat strikes me about this explanation is the last sentence. These books shaped not only American’s views of the country, but also how the world viewed and continues to view the United States. Amazing, isn’t it? To think that an author could tell a story (say, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin) but in the process educate the world about American life (at the time)? It’s common knowledge to Americans and many others that U.S. history bears ugly stains called “racism” and “slavery,” but had Stowe not written that book would the rest of the world really understand how bad it was? Perhaps we would’ve understood it some, but without Stowe’s novel I doubt we would understand it so clearly, so personally. Her novel is no longer just a story, it’s an interpretive lens for understanding America’s past. It’s a truth-teller.

If ever you need proof of the power of story, particularly the power of fiction,  look no further. Stowe’s novel shaped how the world understands America, and how Americans understand themselves. I assume that some of you reading this are writers – can you imagine writing a story with such longevity and gravitas? Do you think Stowe knew what she was doing at the time? I doubt it.

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A Book Nerd’s Pilgrimage: My visit to the Library of Congress

This week I visited the Library of Congress for the first time. For a book nerd like myself this was not unlike a pilgrimage to a holy place. The building felt like a sacred space (more than many churches I’ve been in). The longer I spent there the more I wanted to understand the world, seek out beauty and truth, and humble myself before the minds of great thinkers, and before the creator. Have you ever been to a place that made you feel that way?

By far, it’s the most beautiful and most extensive library I’ve ever been too. Just being in the presence of that many books made me want to read and write for days. I could also go on and on about the architecture and show you a myriad of snapshots but instead I’ll just stick to the highpoints:

My Favorite Statue: Neptune

This statue of Neptune and his court his outside the main entrance of the library. It’s incredible. My little photo here does not do it justice. There are many, many other great statues within the library. I’m sure I didn’t even get a chance to see them all, much less see them up close. This statue of Neptune, however, just struck me.

Library of Congress, mythology

My Favorite Book: The Gutenberg Bible

The importance of the printing press cannot easily be overstated. Read anything on world history  and you’ll run into a section about the Gutenberg Bible and Gutenberg’s printing press. It can be simply stated that the invention of the printing press with movable type drastically changed the world. Seeing this Bible was literally seeing a piece of world history.

Library of Congress

When I saw this Bible it was surrounded by a number of other tourists. I snapped this photo over someone’s shoulder only to realize afterward that we weren’t supposed to be using cameras in that area. (Lucky me!) According to Wikipedia I saw one of forty-eight copies of the Gutenberg Bible, and also, this book is considered the most valuable book in the world.

My Favorite Exhibit: Books that Shaped America

Truth be told, I didn’t get to go to that many exhibits while I was there. My family and I were only able to hang out at the library for about 90 minutes, so I wasn’t able to see and do everything that they had to offer. However, we did walk through this exhibit.

You could probably guess a good number of the books they had displayed (i.e. Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, etc. etc. etc.). However, I was pleasantly surprised by a few of their chosen books. One of my all-time favorite novels was included: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. And my toddler’s current favorite also made the cut: The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.

Some day I hope to return to the Library of Congress, get a library card, and spend a full day (or maybe two) reading books and checking out a big handful to read all week. Until then, this brief adventure will have to do. At the very least it’s one of a few book-nerd-pilgrimage-stops I can cross of my list. Now, if I can just figure out how to get to the London Book Fair

Thoughts on death, music by Longwave

I’ve been thinking about death lately. It sounds morbid, I know, but hang with me for a second here…

Recently good friends at work and at church have lost someone. I’m amazed by their persistence to carry on, and I’m profoundly affected by their pain. Another friend has a spouse who’s facing incredible (fatal?) health problems.

I also work in a part of publishing which keeps in me in constant contact with what’s going on in the world of church ministry. Right now many folks are celebrating lent. As a result I’m frequently reminded of the death of Christ right now. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s a pretty dark part of the Christian story.

And so, my thoughts to turn to death.

Death is popular literary character. I’m sure you’ve seen the angel of death, the grim reaper, or some other similar character in a number of movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 would be one example). Characteristically hooded and untrustworthy, he’s been employed by some of my favorite authors (Bradbury and Gaiman) and he’s more than hinted at in classics like A Christmas Carol and others.

But when real people die, is it appropriate to think of death in such terms? Doesn’t that seem crass, and disrespectful to the mourning? It’s common to think of death as a hooded guy with a scythe when we’re far from it (or him?). Popular movies and novels reveal as much. But when someone passes in reality, it’s the last thing we think of.

Interestingly, death is also personified in the Bible. Death can hold something (Acts 2:24); it is an enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26); it has a shadow (Psalm 23:4); and it’s the rider on one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:8). If God thinks that personifying death is helpful for us to understand it – who am I to argue?

A song worth listening to when thinking about the person of death is this one. Lyrics are printed below.

when the weight is on your shoulders
come on your knees
when the weight is on your shoulders
come on your knees
wake me when it’s over
wake me please
wake me when it’s over
all the things you knew for sure
were not what they seemed
all the things you knew for sure
were not what they seemed
wake me when it’s over
wake me please
wake me when it’s over
when all the noise had gone
anything you want
i will give away just to watch you go

Book Review: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

“A Christmas Carol” has long been one of my favorite Christmas stories. Each year I watch at least two or three different versions of it (and occasionally more). As funny as this may sound, my favorite version is “The Muppet Christmas Carol”.

But I’d never actually read the book until this year. When I picked it up I imagined that I could probably recite the dialogue perfectly. I’ve seen the movies so many times that I figured I knew all of the classic lines. Well, suffice to say I was wrong, there’s much I couldn’t have recited.

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