26 June 2007

Do schools kill creativity?

This excellent talk was given at TED, the annual conference on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. "Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining (and profoundly moving) case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity, rather than undermining it. With ample anecdotes and witty asides, Robinson points out the many ways our schools fail to recognize -- much less cultivate -- the talents of many brilliant people. 'We are educating people out of their creativity,' Robinson says."

What do you think? Do you agree with Sir Ken Robinson? Do you have any stories from your education where you remember some aspect of your creativity being squelched? How do we correct this imbalance without detracting from the other important things kids must learn (math and literacy, etc.)? Teachers are already struggling to try to fit in every subject, and kids are already overwhelmed. Have we outgrown the usefulness of a universal education system where everyone goes through the same track all the way through high school? Home schooling is a phenomenon that has grown rapidly in the US, partly for ideological reasons which I disagree with (a topic for another post someday perhaps), but also perhaps partly due to the recognition that not all children learn alike, and they will learn better if their education is customized to their own unique talents and gifts and interests.

23 June 2007

Death and dying

The following poem by Ruth Bell Graham was printed on the back of the program for her funeral, which was held on June 16 in Montreat, NC. (From the memorial website set up in her honor.)


And when I die,
I hope my soul ascends slowly,
so that I may
watch the earth
receding out of sight,
its vastness growing smaller as I rise,
savoring its recession
with delight.
Anticipating joy
is itself a joy.
And joy unspeakable
and full of glory
needs more than
“in a twinkling of an eye,”
more than “in a moment.”
Lord who am I to disagree?
It’s only we
have much to leave behind;
so much…Before.
These moments
of transition
will, for me, be
time to adore.

What a beautiful reflection on anticipation of death!

I've been thinking about death and dying lately (not in a morbid way, and not my own, but the concept in general), as it has come up in a number of contexts recently. I saw two movies last weekend that broached the subject (Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal). A young Regent student preached a sermon on the topic at my church last Sunday [I'll post a link to here it once the text is up on our church website]. My father has been preparing important documents and letting us "kids" know his wishes for after he passes away. As I prepare to write an article on Walter Wangerin, I've been reading his reflections on his struggle with cancer. There was this article in the current First Things on how important it is to keep death in our awareness, as it forms a foundation for our communities. And then a friend's blog pointed me to the memorial site for Ruth Bell Graham mentioned above.

The event that started this whole sequence of recent engagements with death was when a dear friend, an older woman in my church, stood up before us a few weeks ago, with her husband by her side, and announced that she'd been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She hadn't been in church lately because she'd been ill, but she felt it was important to make the effort to come in and tell us in person. She was at peace with the finality of it, and was anticipating heaven with joy. She is someone who has lived a full life and feels very blessed. The hardest part for her was telling her family, for whom the news would be painful to bear. Of course there was not a dry eye in that room, and we all are grieving at the thought of losing her. But I am so glad she shared the news with us in that way, and that we had a chance to pray with her and mourn with her and hug her. I was also very stirred by her testimony of peace and joy in the face of her own death. I hope I still have enough of a sense of myself by the time I know I'm dying to be able to face it with such equanimity.

People in times past thought about death a lot more than we do in this day and age. Some (most notably the Puritans) kept a memento mori such as a human skull close at hand, to remind them of their own inevitable death, which would encourage them to live the remaining years of their lives well. But even without intentional reminders, death was in front of our forbears all the time. Mortality rates were higher for children, and there were lots more deaths from plague and illnesses which are commonly treatable now. Also, people died at home, surrounded by family, rather than hermetically sealed off in some hospital where the rest of us can conveniently pretend that it isn't going to happen to us or our loved ones. Don't get me wrong. I am very grateful for the advances in medical technology that allow us to alleviate the pain and suffering of the terminally ill. But I question our distancing ourselves from the whole process of death. I think it is part of life, and much can be learned from it. That's easy for me to say, in my 40's with hopefully several more decades left before I have to go through death's tutelage firsthand. But I have heard from a number of people what a privelege they felt it was to be with someone as he or she passed from this life to the next. It is a holy moment. Dare I say I also hope to have that privilege some day? Not soon, mind you! Especially not for my parents, or my dog, who are probably facing it the soonest of anyone I know. But I do want to be there for it when it happens.

I also hope I have the opportunity to know that I'm dying when my own time comes. There are benefits to a sudden and unexpected death, of course. No elongated pain and suffering. But I'd still rather know in advance, to be able to prepare, to "put my affairs in order" as they say, and go through the journey toward death with my wits about me, difficult though it may be. Knowing one is going to die soon has (I'm told) an incredible clarifying and focusing effect. You all of a sudden know what's really important and can ignore the trivial, avoid the temptations of time-wasting activities, throw off the irksome responsibilities placed on you by others, etc. There is a whole genre of writing by those who know they are (probably) in their final illness. Wangerin's mentioned above is just one of many. There's also Westminster Theological Seminary Professor Al Grove's blog (starting especially from 2/5/07 and going backward in time), various "my journey with Alzheimer's" titles, and such. Most of it is incredibly inspirational and full of wisdom. I'd hate to cheat myself out of that time for spiritual growth. Fortunately, it is not up to me to decide whether I need that lesson or not, and God's wisdom is greater than mine will ever be with all the sobering experiences life and death could offer.

19 June 2007

Bad evangelical fiction

I recently came across a thread at ChristLit (Christianity and Literature Discussion Group) on "Bad evangelical fiction." It starts out with this post by Darrell Eifert:
...Very briefly, the question is this: why is Evangelical fiction so bad?? Since the term "evangelical fiction" is so very broad, I'll limit my question to those works which try in some way to convince the reader to accept a "Christian world and life view", be it by outright conversion (hero gets saved in the end) or by trying to put forward elements of Evangelical theology as "real" (the dreaded "end times" fiction for example). My experience has been that these attempts invariably fall flat, and rarely if ever rise above the level of propaganda.

My reason for asking is not so much to beat the proverbial dead horse as much as to ask whether there is some fatal flaw in Evangelical theology that renders "Christian" writers of popular fiction incapable of producing works of emotional depth, plausability and insight (just to throw out an example, Sebastian Faulks' superb WWI novel "Birdsong"). I'm hoping that once we know the problem(s), perhaps we can offer a thoughtful solution to those of us who do grapple with how to produce "works of depth" which include aspects of our faith....
Much of the thread is worth reading, but if you're short on time, some of the best posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

I went through a brief phase of reading bad evangelical fiction (Frank Peretti novels, mostly). But I didn't like what they did to me, and I soon tired of that sort of writing. The dualism portrayed in the books gave me an irrational fear that I had to muster up enough spiritual strength on my own to pray against the powers of evil or they would get me. Fortunately I was reading some good literature alongside them (Lewis, Tolkien, Alan Paton, William Golding, etc.), so I wasn't entirely poisoned.

Then I went through a long period of making fun of and railing against the sensationalist and shallow drivel that fills Christian bookstores and Christian best-seller lists. I laughed when a friend made a website debunking the bad theology in the Left Behind series ("It's time Christians left behind Left Behind"). I smirked in solidarity when I read the front-page article in the Vancouver Sun about how the Regent College Bookstore, perhaps the best theological bookstore in North America, declines to carry the series (see also bookstore employee Ian Panth's response to that article and the uproar it caused).

I took a class on Christianity & Literature with Loren Wilkinson a few years ago, and he pointed out that most of the writers of great fiction with any spiritual depth have been Catholics: François Mauriac, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, etc. So those were mostly the ones we concentrated on in the class. That's not to say there haven't been any lasting classics written by Evangelicals and their spiritual forbears (Pilgrim's Progress, for example), but they have been few and far between.

I've come now to a place in my life where I think I've gotten most of my ranting about bad evangelical literature out of my system and am resting in C.S. Lewis's adage that "the best cure for bad literature is a healthy diet of good literature." So I take his prescription myself and try to share it with others.

12 June 2007

Charles Williams: The Great Magician of the Bizarre

Does anyone have any thoughts on Charles Williams?? If so, please share them here! I’m in the process of reading for, then writing, a little article on Charles Williams, and thus collecting everything I can learn about him in a short time. Some of these thoughts I’ve posted over on the co-inherence list.

CW is the unjustly neglected third member of the Inklings Terrible Trio, after CSL & Tolkien. Unjustly neglected, because his writings—especially his seven shocking, glorious, convoluted, startling, unpredictable, obscure prose narratives (better called, by T. S. Eliot, “supernatural thrillers” or my himself, “metaphysical thrillers”)—are unparalleled. Not that they are the best novels in the world; it’s something else. There is nothing like them. Of course, there is not much that is really like anything else, if you know what I mean (didn’t I say there was nothing like Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow once?). Or perhaps everything is like everything else—maybe that’s Williams’s doctrine of co-inherence. More on that later.

Maybe it’s his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls it “agile.” I think that’s a good word. “Labyrinthine” might work. Whatever it is, it’s not easy. Here’s a sample. In The Place of the Lion, Anthony Durant steps out on the landing of the stairs and finds he’s looking down into a Grand-Canyon style pit, with a swirling sky overhead passing into and becoming the cliffs in some sort of reciprocal cycle. Of course. He felt like he needed to step out to the edge and look up at something.
But as still that strength increased he would yield to such a desire; a greater thing than that was possible—it was for him to know, urgently for him to know, what that other thing might be. He was standing on the very edge, and the wind was rising into a driving might, and a dizziness caught him; he could not resist—why then, to yield, to throw himself outward on the strength that was driving though him as well as around him, to be one with that power, to be blown on it and yet to be part of it—nothing could oppose or bear up against it and him in it. Yet on the edge he pressed himself back; not so, was his passage to be achieved—it was for him to rise above that strength of wind; whether he went down or up it must be by great volition, and it was for such volition that he sought within him.
And so Anthony becomes one with the eagle and soars up above the pit in the house. And it’s all like that! Thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, and confusing as anything. But after five books or so, you get used to the style. And the rewards are many. Like this, for example, probably my favorite first sentence ever:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven)

So, I hope you rush out and buy all of his novels—or at least The Place of the Lion, War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, and Descent into Hell.

Here’s an excellent article by the aforementioned Thomas Howard.

I'm also trying to make a list of CW's main themes, doctrines, concerns. Here are
a few, beginning with the most common or central and moving to the more esoteric or obscure. Please add to this list!

1. Co-inherence (see below)
2. Substitution & Exchange -- the idea that one person can choose to take on another's sufferings.
3. The close interactions of the supernatural and the natural (or the noumenal and the phenomenal) to the point that the two are inextricable from one another.
4. The Platonic Forms
5. Connections with Dante’s Divine Comedy, such as the sanctifying potentialities of Romantic Love; the Beatific vision; the ascent of man through sufferings into holiness and peace; the vision of God as a point (cf. The Greater Trumps) that somehow contains, emanates, radiates, is, and is not, all things. He also did some scholarly work on Dante.
6. His superimposition of the form of the human body on Logres in his Arthurian poetry, and its theological implications.
7. My personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. I have not worked out how they achieve this state of imperturbable tranquility and self-forgetfulness. I don't know if this indeed the condition recommended by Christ in the Gospels and by the writers of the NT Epistles. I wonder how it compares to the detachment expressed by mystics and saints of the past.
8. Mysticism/Ecumenicism/Universalism… I’m not sure what to call it. Sometimes I agree with Charles Wrenn, who, at one Inklings meeting, “almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people…. Williams is eminently combustible” (letter of C. S. Lewis to his brother, 5 Nov. 1939). If not combustible, Williams is at any rate sometimes hovering at or over the edge of orthodoxy—or perhaps he merely sees more clearly than the rest of us, and so sees beyond the dogmas? But an interesting study would be to go further into specific comparisons of his language with that of mystics of all ages and creeds.

But I want the help of those of you who have already read his works, especially if you’ve delved into the poetry, theology, and literary criticism.

First, I’m trying to formulate a definition of “co-inherence.” I want to get beyond simply calling it “love” in my own mind or in my writing. Most discussions of it seem to deal with one of two perspectives: either “How do I apply substitution in my own life?” or “What Bible verses and principles correspond to co-inherence?” Both of these are helpful, but they both seem to depend on a common practice I have found in CW scholarship and discussions so far: that of simplifying CW’s weirdness down into easy, normal, quotidian language. I believe there must be a way of affirming the bizarre while comprehending the concepts.

One CW fan said “…there are connections everywhere; this is one meaning of co-inherence….Another is that they make sense; the opposite of co-inherence is incoherence.” Lovely! But I believe there is something beyond that, too: we already know there are connections everywhere, although we need people like Williams to show us the threads. We might not know everything makes sense, although we hope it will someday.

I sense another, extra-ordinary or sort of multi-dimensional mystical aspect to co-inherence. I don’t know, though, if co-inherence is the same as “substitution,” and if both are the same as “exchange.” Or is co-inherence the condition in which sanctified saints constantly live with other people, Omnipotence, and all creation, while “substitution” and “exchange” are specific acts committed on occasion?

Another question: what are the most helpful secondary works on CW? I have Howard’s & Alice Mary Hadfield’s. I am aware of those by Brian Horne, Gene Cavalier, Charles Hutter & Peter Schkel, Roma King, Mary McDermott Schideler, and Charles Hefling, although I have not read them yet. Does anyone want to comment on the value of these works? Which others do you consider essential?

And finally: What details of Williams’s personal biography interest you the most? Formative literary influences? Self-education?

Thank you for any and all thoughts!

10 June 2007

Women in Art - 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

Here's a beautiful montage of art done in Flash. Someone very brilliant must have spent a lot of time over this. Seamless transitions, and the music (from one of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello) goes with it very nicely.

08 June 2007

Thoughts on Aesthetics in the visual arts

Here is our second philosophy paper posting. This one is by "Gem."

A philosopher of the 1900’s, William James, defined philosophy as "an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly." ("The Aesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy," PG 1) After taking this class I have come to whole-heartedly agree.
Of the five major fields in philosophy, I have been particularly interested in Aesthetics. A German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, first used the word “aesthetics” in 1744 to mean "the science of the beautiful."(Aesthetics in Discipline, PG 1) This is the branch, which raises questions about art and beauty. As my future occupation I plan on teaching within the (visual) arts. Therefore this topic raised many questions about my art and art itself. Does Baumgarten’s statement then mean that art has to be beautiful? If so, what is “beautiful”? Who gets to decide the definition of ‘beauty’? Does beauty actually exist if it changes from one person to the next?
One of the things that we were asked to do in philosophy class was to define in our own words: art and beauty. The definition for art that I created is: “Art is something that one creates that is either visual or audible; made thoughtfully with some amount of work, skill, and passion.” My conclusion for “beauty” was that it is subjective. Although we cannot all agree upon one definition or example of beauty, we all share a general concept of the term. Therefore, it is more an opinion than actual being.
The definition that I came up with for art seems vague; it leaves room for nearly anything made to be considered “art”. Such as: a microwave. Work, skill, time, motive was obviously involved in the making of it. Does this mean then that the microwave is art? Again, more questions are raised. What sets art apart from any other object? Is art set apart at all? Does art have to meet some higher standard from an ultimate creator? Is man’s definition of art alone a high enough standard? Does there have to be a standard at all? Or is it art just because we (man) proclaim it to be so? Does the motive for which art was made play into whether or not it is art or if it is beautiful?
My personal belief as a Christian is that everything we do, including our art, needs to glorify God. Therefore art has a purpose. If it is not fulfilling its purpose I feel that it is then not art. What is the teleology, or design and purpose, of art? Is its only purpose to glorify God, or does it have other aspects that art should achieve?
I believe that we do not live in a pure world. Rather, we live in a fallen world that has been transformed, and given a human angle. Our world is absorbed with people’s attitudes towards it; our needs, ideas, aims, ideals, joys and sufferings. This world is the vortex of our existence. We fill our world with what we create, which is our art. If we were to remove this human factor (our art) from the world, I feel we would be confronted by a time where everything was unsympathetic to everything else. The whole endless range of our relationships to the world stems from the sum-total of our interactions with it. We interact to the world with our words, pictures and creations, otherwise known as our art. We need and use art to express ourselves, to communicate when there are not words to convey how we feel or what we think needs to be said or remembered.
What happens when we use our art to communicate and describe how we are feeling, but what we describe is not pleasing to the Lord? Can our art ever be good if we are a fallen imperfect people creating it?
Art is what we make to express, communicate, remember, and fill our time with when we need something to do or to feel proud of. What we consider beautiful or worth looking at or listening to is what separates one piece from another.
Michelangelo once said: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” What I take from this quote is that our art is a gift from God. In order for it to be true we must reflect His perfection and therefore glorify Him through our work. So I challenge you as we compare art now or in the future to ask yourself some of the questions I have discussed. I also challenge you to study your actions and make sure that your actions and art glorify the one that lovingly created you in His Image.

Gem also had arranged a slide show of her own photography to accompany this paper. The images are available below.
photos 1
photos 2
photos 3

04 June 2007

"Temptation and Metaphysics in Perelandra" by RawkChick

For the next few posts, I'll be publishing some final papers by my philosophy students. This first one is by "RawkChick." Enjoy.

What would temptation be like if it happened on another planet? What would the tempter use? Who would be the victim? Would there be parallels to the biblical temptation? C.S. Lewis answered some of these questions in his science fiction best seller, Perelandra. It wasn’t an allegory, but there were still parallels. It is not an allegory because not every object or person in the temptation on Venus correlated with an object or person in the biblical temptation. Lewis is explaining these similar characteristics in his fantasy. In addition to including temptation in his book, he addresses the subject of metaphysics, a sub-genre in philosophy that examines what is real.
One important metaphysical question is “What supernatural beings exist?” In Perelandra, supernatural beings exist in the form of Maleldil, the parallel of God, and the Eldila, the parallels of angels. In Perelandra, the Green Lady, also referred to as Mother and Queen, was the parallel of Eve. She was tempted by the Un-man, who was in the character Weston’s body. The main character Ransom, is what separates this temptation from the biblical one. He could not really be called a parallel to Adam, since Adam did not try to stop Eve from putting that tasty morsel of fruit in her mouth. Another reason is since Tor, the Green Man, King, and Father, is the parallel to Adam. Ransom’s sole purpose of coming to Perelandra was to stop the evil spirits from corrupting the planet. Since the Green Lady did not need very much sleep, or even none at all, and the Un-man did not need any, Ransom had a hard time staying with them as they moved from island to island, as he needed sleep. He made arguments to try to pursuade the Queen to not listen to the Un-man, but when he blew it and started exploding and cursing in English, the Un-man used that to his advantage, telling the Green Lady all sorts of lies and tempting her even further.
Now one might be wondering what the temptation might be. Was it fruit, as it is in the Bible? Or was it even something concrete? Was it a thought, or a way of life? The temptation that the Un-man chose was not a concrete one. He chose vanity and knowledge, or “growing older” as the Green Lady put it. One morning Ransom woke to find two figures dressed in feathers. One was “the ugliest, and the other the most beautiful of the children of men” (pg. 134). But despite his disappointment in finding that the Un-man had succeeded once again, he also got satisfaction in finding that the lady did not really like the feathers after all, and she threw the robe away and forgot about it.
Though at times it may have seemed hopeless to Ransom that the Queen would fall for the Un-man’s scheme and life in Perelandra as they knew it would end, the Green Lady did not oblige the Un-man. However much the Un-man schemed and connived, she did not fall. Unlike the biblical temptation, where Eve gave in to temptation, Adam gave in to Eve, and the world fell, Perelandra stayed perfect and unfallen. In Perelandra, the consequences were that the world could continue in its path on perfect harmony; no killings, no angry seas, and the Queen could bear her children in a world of peace, raising them to rule over the beasts of Perelandra with peace and wisdom. Whereas, in the biblical temptation, the world as Adam and Eve knew it ceased to exist. They had to work, and one day they would die. If the world were in this universe, it would be impossible, since, when Adam and Eve fell, the whole universe fell with them.
There are many parallels to the biblical temptation in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel Perelandra. There are also metaphysical aspects that are addressed. Another important metaphysical question is “What would happen to the universe if some creatures somewhere withstood temptation?” There would be a new creation of creatures that would have a direct “link” to the ruler of the universe, in this case Maleldil. Another result would be perfect submission to and right relations with the rulers of that particular world. In Perelandra, it would be Tor and Tinidril, previously mentioned and the King and Queen, Perelandra herself, and the Eldil. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, I think Earth would look something like Perelandra--no killing, no death, and all the beasts in perfect harmony, in perfect submission to the rulers of the land.

01 June 2007

June Poem of the Month

I've been writing in counterpoint with Gerard Manley Hopkins these days, trying to imitate some of his rhythms and consonances. So here's a bit of an exercise after reading his "Spring"
(which you can find here).

With what kind of body

The seed is tilled in, tended, and dead.
Brown shelled, tiny, a round naught, smooth spot
on the palm and then gone, ah well.
A million fellows fall through fingers
and die on rough dirt where they hide. Until spring.

And the thing they are born to some warm morn
we could sing to, so peach-yellow, sea-pink,
and thin rich green seems it, too thick in the field
to be trundled in arms full, bundled in waves
where the wind dares to tumble. Trebled
in texture, thrice trebled in sight and in sweetness
to sense: see what a seed comes to,
see what death has done now!

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be,
but just a seed, perhaps of what or of something else.

—I Corinthians 15:36b-37