21 March 2006

Survey of Christian Classics

Read: Thomas Howard's brilliantly enlightening comments on Many Dimensions in his (Howard's) indespensible The Novels of Charles Williams.

Listened to: The beginning of Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries on tape.

Next year I hope to teach again a Survey of Christian Classics course, like the one I used to teach at BICS, but this time for high school students. I would like your advice on the reading list. Here are the works I plan to use thus far. This is a modification of the syllabus Rosie's mom used to use. Rosie, I'll pull out that list you sent of contemporary Xian writers and see who I else can add who's still alive. :)

St. Augustine, Confessions
“Caedmon’s Hymn”
“The Dream of the Rood”
Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love”
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses
John Milton, Paradise Lost
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Selections from Jonathan Edwards’ Basic Writings
Short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne
George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie
Short stories by Flannery O’Connor
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry by James H. Trott (Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Coleridge, C. Rossetti, Hopkins, Eliot, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, et al.)

We will, unfortunately but necessarily, be using only selections of these works. They are, after all, high school students, albeit very intelligent and motivated homeschoolers.


Rosie Perera said...

Read: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) (third time for me; second time was in 1995; this was my father's favorite poem, so we read it as a family around the dinner table during "family reading" one year when I was a kid)

Listened to: One CD of Mastering Italian (getting ready for my trip to Italy in June), and Mozart's String Quartets Nos. 15, 16 & 17

Ach! How can one ever come up with a list of the most important classics of Christian literature to introduce to students? Your list is as good as any. I'm embarrassed to admit I've still never read Dante, though I've been wanting to find the time to do it for years. Apart from that, the only other entry on your list which I'm not really qualified to comment on is Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, but I'm going to comment anyway. I have a little booklet of them, and have skimmed through a few of them, but never really saw the point in reading them. They're kind of boring, if I recall. I figure it's more important to understand the context in which they were written and the general gist of what Luther was on about rather than read the actual theses (this is not usually the case with primary source material, mind you; so perhaps I'm just ignorant because I haven't actually read them!)

I would think Julian of Norwich might be a bit difficult for high school kids to wrap their heads around. Just the small excerpt about her vision of the nut in the palm of her hand, representing all that has been created (in the hand of God), might be enough to give a flavor of it without putting the kids off by her strange mysticism.

Of the others on your list, I would put asterisks beside the following, as being particularly good choices for a class such as the one you'll be teaching:

*St. Augustine, Confessions
*“Caedmon’s Hymn”
*Here I Stand
*The Pilgrim’s Progress
*Short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne
*The Princess and Curdie
*The Great Divorce
*Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Coleridge, C. Rossetti, Hopkins, Eliot, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, et al.

If you're going to have them read any Jonathan Edwards, and if "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is on your list of excerpts, I'd make sure the students realized that is not very representative of Edwards in general, even though it is his best known piece of writing. Perhaps I'd pair it with what's probably the best-known classic 20th century sermon, "My Heart, Christ's Home" by Robert Boyd Munger, just for comparison. (Incidentally, this little gem was first preached in the 1950's at my church, University Presbyterian, in Seattle.)

Some other suggestions I might consider adding:

- The Hound of Heaven (Francis Thompson)
- The Book of Common Prayer (excerpts); I would want to discuss the historical context of its composition and its literary & spiritual impact
- The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence)
- Foxe's Book of Martyrs (excerpts) - after the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, this was probably the next best selling Christian book for centuries, with the possible exception of Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis), some excerpts of which might also make a good addition.

I would probably want to have a 20th century novel on the list. Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow would be an excellent choice. Wonderful story, and lots of deep biblical symbolism and interesting literary allusions you could have fun with in teaching it. I think high school kids would enjoy it.

Iambic Admonit said...

Really good suggestions, thank you! I will certainly only use a little bit of Julian. I've wondered about adding other "mystics," such as Theresa of Avila, Madame Guyon, St. John of the Cross, etc. I'm not sure. I am, for personal and denomination reasons, leaning towards Protestant, and specifically Reformed, theologians, but balancing them with a varied historical overview. Luther is quite dry, but makes more sense after reading Bainton's biography.
What you said about Edwards was right on. When Ian Murray came and spoke at the Edwards' Tercentenary in Northampton, MA, he mentioned the false impression given by studying "Sinners..." alone. He had statistics for how many sermons Edwards preached on love and mercy, and they far outnumber those on judgement/damnation/hellfire.
Then what about In His Steps? Strange, controversial, perhaps stronger on works than grace, but certainly a powerful book in the life of the church at one time. What about Aquinas? What about Spurgeon? But one must stop somewhere. This is only high school!!!
Check out Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Rosie Perera said...

I shouldn't think you would need to have them read more examples from the mystics. I wasn't introduced to the mystics until graduate school, and even then they were (and still are) mostly over my head. You could give your students a bibliography of other classics they might want to explore someday when they're older, so that they at least recognize titles like Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing, should they come upon them. I'm forever grateful for the familiarity I gained with the titles and authors of hundreds of classics when I was growing up (many of which I still haven't read yet, but I'm chipping away at them). Part of the credit for that goes to having a mother with an English Lit MA who kept Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia in a prominent place in the house and encouraged us to use it for our school assignments (I have my own copy now and love to browse through it). It also helped being on the high school quiz team, where we had to familiarize ourselves with all kinds of "trivia" such as what was the author of such-and-such a book. I still have those book lists we studied!

I've never read In His Steps, so I don't know much about it. It was all the rage among a certain set of Christians a while back (the ones who made the WWJD bracelets popular; doesn't the phrase "What would Jesus do?" come from that book?). But their literary diet tended to consist of "lite" Christian fiction, "How to Witness to ______" tracts [fill in the blank with your favorite group from Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults], and cheesy Christian Living titles, all purchased from the local Evangelical bookstore which specialized mostly in "Jesus Junk" (ΙΧΦΥΣ-fish-eating-Darwin-fish car ornaments, "His Pain Our Gain" T-shirts, and the like). So I figured In His Steps would likewise be something I could do without, and gave it a pass. Is it worth reading?

I haven't read Spurgeon either. The name's familiar, and I know he was a famous preacher, but that's all I know. I don't think I'd rank him with the literary classics, even though he was influential on many Christians. Ditto for popular devotional literature such as My Utmost for His Highest (Oswald Chambers) and Hinds' Feet on High Places (Hannah Hurnard).

I would say Aquinas belongs more in a history or philosophy or theology class rather than a literature class. His Summa is classic literature to be sure, but his doctrine and his place in the development of western philosophy and Catholic theology are the main reasons people study him. He's also probably too dry for high schoolers.

After rereading those last few paragraphs, I'm now inclined to remove The Book of Common Prayer and Foxe's Book of Martyrs from my list of suggestions. The former, while of excellent literary quality, would belong more in a class on history, theology, or ecclesiology. And the latter, while it was popular in its day, doesn't really qualify as classic literature anymore, because educated people aren't reading it still, except as a curiosity or to study history.

Speaking of Caedmon's Hymn (we were, back a couple of comments ago), do you know the poem Caedmon by Denise Levertov? There's an interesting commentary on it (and on the original) at Representative Poetry Online, an excellent poetry archive at the University of Toronto.

Iambic Admonit said...

When I taught this course before, I (and it) always wavered between emphasizing Christian and prioritizing Classics. It's still an issue. The works I use should both be classified as literary classics and provide theological/devotional meat for the mind and soul. Priviledging one aspect over the other would skew either the worldview or the quality, neither of which I'm willing to compromise.
In that case, The Princess and Curdie hardly counts as a great work of the Western canon. I partly put it in as a relief from the weight of lots of the reading. I'll have to ponder whether to use The Practice of the Presence of God .
And I don't know about In His Steps. Yes, that's the "What Would Jesus Do?" book. I think it is worth your reading. It has been appropriated by those who rejoice in a sort of gift-shop-Christianity, which you describe aptly, if not kindly! I waver between thinking any expression of faith is good, as long as it's sincere (faith of a child, again: simplicity and all that), and wanting to condemn those who express their faith in ways the educated/intellectual/philosophic/etc could never admire.
Shouldn't Christians, with the mind of Christ, be those whose intellect is respected by all others??

Iambic Admonit said...

I didn't know Levertov's retelling of Bede's Caedmon story. I prefer the original, questionable though its accuracy may be. :)

Rosie Perera said...

I the unkind, ungrateful.

You reminded me how quick I often am to "condemn those who express their faith in ways the educated...could never admire." Sincere though they are, I'm mostly annoyed that these types of Christians often put thinking people off from the faith. But on the other hand, my condemnation of them is no more attractive in God's eyes, nor winsome to seekers, I'm sure.

Fortunately there are plenty of books that are both Christian and Classics. At least for now, still. However there are movements afoot to remake the canons of Western literary classics to embrace more diversity, which would entail dropping some of the Christian classics like Pilgrim's Progress, no doubt. I'm all for including more classics of non-Western traditions (for example, I just bought at a used bookstore an unabridged copy of The Tale of Genji, which is "universally recognized as the greatest masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative"). But how can we have time for all of this in introductory literature classes without dropping some priceless gems of our own Western tradition? To some extent, I think we need to treat intro lit classes as an invitation to be life-long readers, and encourage students to take the rest of their lives to educate themselves about literature from other parts of the world, with perhaps a couple of examples to get them started in that direction. Otherwise we give them no sense of rootedness in one particular tradition. Does this make sense? Is this still a valid approach even though our world is growing smaller through globalization, the Internet, and more different ethnicities within our own neighborhoods? I think in a class which is self-consciously a survey of Christian Classics, this question is moot. It's more relevant to general literature classes in public schools and universities.