Seneca’s Tough Love for Book Lovers

If you are like me, and take great joy in curating your personal library, then this excerpt from Seneca’s Epistle 2 may be a little disappointing. The translation is from Gummere’s volume in the Loeb Classical Library: 

The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere…And in reading of many books is a distraction.

Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you possess, it is enough to posses only as many books as you can read…So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.

This reminds me of a critique I heard some time ago of the way we assign reading in University courses. The argument was made that by requiring lengthy reading lists in our classes, we condemn our students to remembering very little of what they hurriedly skim through. Instead, it was suggested, we should assign fewer books of great importance and have our students read them deeply and repeatedly over the course of the semester. Sounds like Seneca would agree. As would I suspect Dr. Bancroft, who taught me Great Books and a great deal more, not least the importance of reading a book slowly and more than once.

Which two or three books do you go back to over and over? Which authors do you tend to read more than others? How might digital media forms relate to Seneca’s warning against disorderly reading? Do feed readers epitomize “discursive and unsteady” reading? 

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Wisdom and Eloquence

Sadness, anger, and hope.  These are the emotions that I experienced as I read Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans.  The book casts a vision for education that leads students not only to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially but to foster similar growth in society.  Against the pragmatism of vocational-technical educational philosophy, the authors advocate education that instills in students a love for wisdom and the skill to use that wisdom for the transformation of the culture. 
With regard to the range of emotions evoked  in me by this book, I was saddened because the rich tradition of the liberal arts has been so significantly neglected in favor of contemporary experimentation in educational method.  I was saddened because we do not, as a culture, generally approach education as a means of gaining wisdom but as a means of generating income.  Education has historically been about producing cultural leaders.  And if such leaders are to be produced, they must be educated to think well and speak clearly.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who crafted the American Declaration of Independence.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who forged the Protestant Reformation.  This is the sort of education that produces free cultures, and if it is lost, then freedom is lost as well.
I felt anger because I did not receive such a Christ-centered and classical education.  I am struggling now to gain the sort of education of which these men write because I did not receive it in grade school.  I was not taught the intricacies of language and how to use it with care and precision in a persuasive manner.  I was not taught to identify the fallacies foisted upon me by those who will seek to take advantage.  I didn’t learn to diagram a sentence until I took intermediate level Greek in seminary.  Indeed, I learned to diagram in Greek before learning the same skill in English, and my understanding of English grammar at present is a result of the only two options of sinking or swimming in graduate school Greek.  How much benefit I would have reaped had I been trained in these skills from the earliest grades. 
But I also felt hope.  I felt hope because men like Littlejohn and Evans are writing books like Wisdom and Eloquence.  I felt hope because our Lord is raising up a generation of educators who long to give their children what they themselves never received.  I felt hope because Christian parents across the country are taking charge of the education of their children in obedience to Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6.  I felt hope because my own son will perhaps be given the sort of education which I did not receive, which will equip him to shape the world in which he lives rather than be shaped by it.
You have certainly noticed by now that this is not the typical book review in that I’ve spoken more of my reaction to the book rather than the content of the book itself.  But it occurs to me that the highest recommendation of a book might come in the form of personal testimony rather than a summary of content.  I will say briefly that the authors use the opening chapters (1-4) to establish the philosophical framework for Christian liberal arts education.  The following four chapters (5-8) will be especially helpful to those with little previous exposure to the liberal arts curriculum.  In these chapters, Littlejohn and Evans give an overview of the entire curriculum and make numerous helpful suggestions with regard to objectives and course planning.  The final two chapters (9-10) provide some practical advice for establishing a healthy ethos for a liberal arts school.  Many of these chapters should be read and read again.  The book has some specific strengths, of which I have written previously.  And, as with all published works, it has weaknesses, of which I may write in the future.  At this point allow me to simply commend to you the joy of reading this book.
Wisdom and Eloquence is itself full of wisdom put eloquently.  Every Christian parent should read this book.  It is one with which I will certainly consult with regularity.

Rhetorical Criticism: An Appropriate Method for New Testament Studies?

I’ve been working through some material on rhetorical critical approaches to New Testament studies, as of late, in preparation for my presentation at SBL later this year.  While it seems to be gaining acceptance and adherents, rhetorical criticism remains somewhat criticisized as a lens for interpreting biblical texts.  Critics often argue that because our knowledge of the education of the biblical authors is limited, we don’t know whether they were trained in the canons of classical rhetoric.  Thus, they say, it is illegitimate to evaluate and interpret their writings based on those canons. 
A question may be posed in response, though: Do the writings of the biblical authors evidence an awareness of and proficiency in classical rhetoric?  If we answer this question affirmatively, then it would seem rhetorical categories are not only appropriate but called for with regard to the texts which would appear to use them.  If the writer evidences facility with ancient rhetorical convention, then to read the text through a rhetorical-critical lens would be to read the text on its own terms.  We don’t need to have explicit data about the author’s education to judge whether his writings indicate a knowledge of rhetoric.  In my current project, I aruge that 2 Peter 3 is structured with a rather elegant rhetorical transition device.  Is there external evidence that Peter had classical oratory training?  No.  But there is internal evidence that he was familiar with this particular device and put it to use in the letter.
Let me say as well that I find rhetorical criticism to be much more fruitful in the New Testament letters than I do other genres.  The letters were written to be delivered orally upon their arrival at their destination.  It makes perfect sense that they would include features to enhance the oral delivery of the letter/speech.  So, while I might read Romans through a rhetorical lens, I would hesitate to read Mark that way.
So, is rhetorical criticism an appropriate method for studying the New Testament?  The answer is that it is more appropriate in some places and less in others.  If the letters evidence rhetorical features, then we should allow the text to determine our method and analyze them in light of those features.  Evidence for rhetorical features is harder to demonstrate in narratives.  So, we should be more cautious as we approach those texts.

A Student’s Guide to Classics by Bruce S. Thornton

This incredibly brief survey (92 pp.) will orient the interested novice to the general contours and situations of the Greek and Latin classical authors.  This volume is organized according to ancient genres and covers, among others, epic, poetry, drama, prose fiction, rhetoric, and history.  Each section introduces the major figures in Greek and Latin and often highlights one or two major ideas of their work or significant features of their legacy.  The student will not only encounter important authors but will become acquinted with important terminology which is defined in a non-technical manner.  Don’t come to this book for detailed treatments of the relevant material; that is not its aim.  Students will find it useful as a starting point with regard to which books to read first in each genre.  The survey concludes with a section of recommendations for further reading which includes some secondary sources along with suggestions for preferable translations of primary sources.
One nice benefit is that Thornton sometimes points towards fields that overlap with the classics.  For example, students of American history will find it important to read the classical authors who influenced the founders of the United States and their ideas about government and liberty, which include but are hardly limited to Demosthenes and Polybius.  Similarly, by studying the classics Christians will find a great deal of material which provides a context for reading the scriptures, which were penned in the classical world.  An example would be Aristotle’s treatment of hamartia  in his Poetics, the word that New Testament authors use for the idea of sin.  Christians will find it beneficial to contrast and compare the pagan and Christian understandings of sin.
The book comes in a series published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute called ISI Guides to Major Disciplines, which are “reader-friendly introductions to the most important fields of knowledge in the liberal arts” (back cover).  The “Guides” are part of ISI’s Student Self-Reliance Project, which is “an integrated, sequential program of educational supplements designed to guide students in making key decisions that will enable them to acquire an appreciation of the accomplishments of Western civilization” (91).  Their web resources provide information on shaping a personal curriculum for self-study along with information on choosing the best colleges for studying the liberal arts.  It looks to be quite helpful material.

Burger King, Western Culture, and the Lordship of Christ

I thought about calling this post “The importance of studying Greek mythology for Christian parenting and discipleship.”  But that would be a bit wordy for a blog title.  So, let’s call it the subtitle and move on.

Yesterday, I ate lunch at Burger King with my father-in-law, my son, and my four nephews.  While we were eating, I noticed that the lettering on the side of the small cups was encouraging the children to “Take Care of Mother Earth.”  This might seem rather harmless to many a parent; however, I submit that it is part of a larger cultural and pagan onslaught that has become so normalized that we do not realize we are being attacked and, thus, cannot defend our children nor teach them to defend themselves against the ambush that comes on the side of their kid’s meal cups.  “What’s the big deal?” you ask.  Well, the big deal is that Mother Earth comes to us from the writings of an ancient Greek poet named Hesiod and his work on the birth of the Greek gods entitled Theogony.  In short, Burger King is pummeling our children with pagan theology under our very noses, and we know it not. 

In the Theogony, Earth and Sky are two gods who come together to have children.  One of those children is Chronos (or Father Time) who overthrows his father by mutilating him with a sicle and who is honored to this day by many unknowing celebrants annually on New Year’s Eve.  After overthrowing his oppressive father, Chronos has offspring with his mother, among whom is numbered Zeus, who ultimately overthrows his father Chronos and becomes king of the gods. 

The point is that Greek thought is so ingrained into the culture of the West that it shows up on fast food restaurant cups, and the problem is that most Christian parents don’t know Greek mythology well enough to spot it when it shows up in Burger King.  So, our kids grow up with a general cultural framework in which earth or nature is said to have some sort of motherly relation to them, and they were taught by the disposable cups at BK. 

The problem is compounded when we consider that the biblical vocation of human beings is to image God’s glory into the world and consecrate the earth to his glory by excersizing godly and Christlike dominion therein.  The earth is not our mother.  God is our Father, and he has designed us to oversee and steward the earth not to think we were born from her.  Greek mythology (and Burger King) teaches that we are derived from earth and that she is higher than we.  The Bible teaches us that all creation culminates in the making of mankind in the image of God to rule over the earth as kings and priests. 

Of course, if we don’t understand what is being done to us and our kids, we will not know how to disciple them into mature people who can discern when pop culture is trying to hit them with a little pagan idolatry.  This is why an understanding of the Greeks and the culture of the west is important for Christian discipleship in general and Christian parenting in particular.  Like everything else, the ideology on the cups at Burger King must be considered in light of the universal Lordship of Christ, lest we be unknowingly subsumed into paganism and idolatry.