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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

A POLEMIC

On the Origins of Post-Modern Criticism

For David Hume

David Hume

(The radical Empiricism of the Endarkenment entails treating the Good as an abstraction, rejecting Truth for fact, and reducing the Beautiful to a subjective response.  Thus it undercuts the docere of Literature, leaving us only with a truncated diligere.  This epistemology applied to Art can only lead to Aestheticism, which inevitably degenerates into Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction.  Once the actual Values of the Sages have thus been destroyed, they can now be replaced with Marxism, Feminism, Freudianism, or whatever other Ism we wish to impose on Texts left defenseless by the death of Truth.  To get beyond this impasse, we must abandon the skeptical philosophy that produced it as question-begging Nonsense.)

 

That skeptic, David Hume,

Gained philosophic fame

Committing to the fume

Of metaphoric flame

Whole libraries of pages

By metaphysic sages.

 

Unless it could be measured

By his empiric wit,

It never could be treasured,

And so, away with it!

Mere sophistry, illusion,

Divinity ( ! ), confusion.

 

Augustine and Aquinas,

Isaiah, Moses, Paul,

Nothing but a minus;

Better burn them all:

The penalty for treason

Against enlightened “Reason.”

 

Erasmus, Calvin, Luther,

Dante, Milton, Spenser:

What could be uncouther,

More worthy of a censor?

Life seen through the prism

Of rank empiricism.

 

To keep them as purveyors

Of just imagination

Is but to be betrayers

Of all their conversation:

Dead, white, oppressive pigs

For mere aesthetic prigs.

 

Good critics can’t arise

From bad philosophy.

It should be no surprise

That we have come to be

Despisers of the True—

Of Goodness, Beauty, too.

 

If only what the senses

Can see or smell or feel

Is able to convince us

That it is really real,

How’d the sensation grow

That tells us this is so?

 

We’d really like to know.

Dr. Williams being unimpressed by Hume’s arguments.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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CCII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Jim Kilgo was a professor of American Literature at the University of Georgia when I was doing my doctorate there back in the 1970s.  I never had a class with him, but we bonded as fellow Christians.  We had other reasons too.  I miss that man.

KILGO

We never did get to the woods together.

We’d meet up in his air-conditioned office

From time to time to swap a tale or two.

He’d find a chair beneath a pile of papers

For me, beneath a pile of books for him,

And we’d lament the state of education

And then get on to more important things:

How quiet dawn is in a river swamp,

How sharp the wind blows over Albert’s Mountain,

The steam a plate of grits makes on a table

When frost is on the sedge outside the window,

The best last lines in all of literature

(They must be Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne

And then “The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius”).

We’d quote from C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Faulkner,

Or Robert Frost, or Flannery O’Connor;

We loved the words that named the things we loved.

We even tried some naming of our own–

He’d read his stories, and I’d read my poems,

Testing lines like newly mounted axe-heads

For balance and a clean and compact stroke:

The different rhythm life has on the trail–

I said, “Three days away from clocks you feel it”;

The trout he caught high in a mountain stream

In pools between the rapids and the falls–

“No gift comes cleaner from the hand of God.”

His book was Deep Enough for Ivorybills.

He meant woodpeckers in a cypress swamp;

I take it and apply it to his soul.

We love the words that name the things we love,

And one among the cleaner strokes is “Jim.”

Photo credit: David Hodges

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

XCII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

When everybody else was abandoning iambic pentameter for free verse, Gerard Manley Hopkins dove even deeper into the metrical sea of poetry and came up with creative pearls we still haven’t caught up to. This tribute was in New Oxford Review, May, 1981.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Gerard Manley Hopkins

Daylight’s dauphin, wanwood, diamond delves,
Mountain mind-cliffs, lightning, eyes of elves,
Finches’ wings or falcon’s, wolfsnow, wet
Weeds wildness by the burn-bank lingering yet,
Thoughts of Scotus, music of Purcell
Ring out like stones rim-tumbled in a well.
All are lead-golden echoes, all a view
Of Eden Garden, fresh when it was new
Or cursed and cancerous, fell with Adam’s fall,
Blasted with death’s dread worst despair—Not all
Is this the tale. Christ did for that he came,
Grace graces: thus He flings out broad His Name;
The Spirit boods still; brooded over you.
Your firedint, mark on mind is not yet through:
Still in your lines He flings it forth anew.

Hopkins at his Desk
Hopkins at his Desk

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

THE SKEPTIC AND THE TEXT

I’ve noticed a new type of skeptic over the last few years. He questions whether there even is a text of the New Testament. There are so many manuscripts and so many variants, how can we ever claim with any credibility to know what the original manuscripts of the New Testament even said? And since we don’t even have access to the text, how can we possibly treat it as authoritative and trustworthy?

Codex Alexandrinus
Codex Alexandrinus

The ignorance of the science of textual criticism on the part of this skeptic is truly abysmal. But you can explain the actual state of the manuscript tradition, the fact that the New Testament is better attested than any other ancient document, the criteria by which we evaluate those manuscripts and reconcile their variant readings, the tried and true validity of those criteria, and how trivial most of the variants actually are, until you are blue in the face, and not faze him one bit. He really doesn’t care about any of that. He really doesn’t care about whether we can know what the New Testament says, much less what it says, still less whether it is true. He just clings to the variants as his excuse for escaping its authority. He likes having learned the word variant so well that he just keeps repeating it without ever responding to your patient attempts at explaining what it actually means and what its significance actually is.

Codex
What saddens me most about this mindset is the impoverishment of mind and heart that inevitably flows from it. You’ve found a new way to justify your self-referential doubt. Congratulations. But what are you missing as a result?
I need a sonnet to answer that question.

The skeptic doubts there even is a text.
He hides behind the tiny variations
And will not hear a reasonable narration
Of methods: what comes first and what comes next,
Criteria to leave us unperplexed.
His questions answered bring him no elation;
He must not really want illumination:
The truth he claims to seek just leaves him vexed.

The seeker of the Truth will not be whipped
So easily. He turns from what is not
To all the rich wine waiting to be sipped,
So revels in the pleasure of the plot,
The romance of the ancient manuscript,
The treasure of the tittle and the jot.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

CorsairMs

For more of Dr. Williams’ poetry, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS.  For more of his apologetics, order REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE.

Reflections-Front Cover-2013-6-4

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 2

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Part 2

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

What can Evangelical writers learn from Christian writers from liturgical churches, who have done a much better job of pursuing excellence?  What can we learn from them without compromising our own Evangelical convictions?  Those were the questions I raised last week and will try to answer today by looking at Flannery O’Connor.

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

THE HILLBILLY THOMIST

Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since. A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32). In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well. A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom. There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

 
Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision. She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.

Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.
Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.

A TRUE WORLDVIEW

First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity. “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178). “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80). But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth. O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” (91). When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality” (163). Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

 
Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy. Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience. But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

A THEOLOGY OF ART

The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist. She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.” And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171). This is a telling comment. That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism. Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

 
I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art. For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos. O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention. Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama. So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them. Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's writing desk.
Miss Flannery’s writing desk.

THE SENSE OF MYSTERY

The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery. Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the good? “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote. Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79). In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

 
Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way? I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery. One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship. This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125). Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to let us express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call. Some of these goals are worth pursuing; but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity felt as such were one of them, we would be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's gravestone.
Miss Flannery’s gravestone.

CONCLUSION

O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts. Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture. They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”

WORKS CITED

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.
______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor Universtiy, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

InklingsofReality5c

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.