October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing (or mailing) his 95 Theses, and launching what came to be the Protestant Reformation. Since then believers have divided over Scripture, the sacraments (two, four, seven?), and much less serious issues. So what does this mean, and why should we care? The links below (mostly from First Things) hopefully help you answer some of those questions. For my some of own thoughts on unity in truth, please also see what I believe. And continue to pray and into the unity for which Christ died.
Holy Father, sanctify us in the truth of your word. Grant us faith in your wisdom and not our own, that we may all be one, just as you are in Christ and Christ in you, that we also may be in you—one body.
Help us, Lord, to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, that the world may believe that you have sent your Son and loved us even as you loved him.
Keep before us, O God, our hope in Christ alone, that we may be with him where he is—with you—to enjoy the glory and love that is yours from before the foundation of the world.
Wash us in one baptism, feed us from one loaf, refresh us in one cup, that we may praise you with one voice, from one heart, one soul, and one mind.
Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
Lutheran World Federation & the Catholic Church
A Catholic View on the Reformations
George Wiegel, First Things
Lutheranism Turns 500
Matthew Block, First Things
From Henry VIII to Henry Ford
Carl Trueman, First Things
On Mere Protestantism
Dale M. Coulter, First Things
The Unity That Might Have Been
Peter J. Leithart, First Things
Why We Should Care About Martin Luther
Frank Bellizzi, The Christian Chronicle
Ayn Rand Really, Really Hated C.S. Lewis *Explicit*
Matthew Schmitz, First Things
C.S. Lewis: Love is an Undying Fire
Bobby Valentine, Stoned-Campbell Disciple
Fighting 'Chronological Snobbery' with C.S. Lewis
Michael Reeves, Crossway
C.S. Lewis Talks to a Dog About Lust
Trevin Wax, The Gospel Coalition
Tolkien & the Great Tale
Adam Schwartz, The University Bookman
Tolkien's Lay of Aotrou & Itroun to be Republished
Alison Flood, The Guardian
Howard Shore & the Music of Middle-earth
From The Imaginative Conservative
Why Creation Matters to God, and to Us
Katherine Gould, The Christian Chronicle
Reclaiming the Center on Climate Change
John Murdock, First Things
Creation: What the World Is
Paul Julienne, BioLogos
How Science Points to Creation, and our Creator
Katharine & Douglas Hayhoe, BioLogos
How to Look at a Tree
Joshua P. Hothschild, First Things
5 Things You Can Do Now
Tricia Escobedo, CNN
Save the Coffee!
Nancy Coleman, CNN
Of course, the real victim in all of this is the kingdom itself. As the Bishop of Carlisle exhorted Parliament before it deposed Richard II:
My Lord of Herford here [Henry Bolingbroke], whom you call king,
There is simply no end to treason’s slippery slope, and the consequences – religious, moral, and political – affect more than the traitor’s private universe. The deep foundation of government being shattered, no ruler can speak with the ancient moral authority; there is no king, everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Jdg 21:25). This dissipation is, of course, rooted in the actions of the kings themselves.
The first decline of public spirit is Bolingbroke, whose usurpation of the crown can be cited (as it is by Falstaff) as a warrant for self-seeking on every hand. The second cause is Hal, who refuses to shore up law and ceremony to stay the confusion, but instead spreads unease by allowing, or even promoting, expectation of an indefinitely protracted period of self-seeking from the throne. (Alvis, “Spectacle” 116)
Law (which is nothing if not a restraint upon our selfish desires) is difficult to enforce when the king himself is unrestrained. The underlying fault of these kings is their subjection of the spirit to the polis, of virtue to power; a subjection that is Machiavellian in both its spirit and its letter.
In Shakespeare, we see the emergence of a line of political men—notably Henry IV and Henry V—who are partly Machiavellian, and partly Christian, and whose Christianity and Machiavellianism subsist in a certain kind of harmony . . . . Their self-interest has taken on a patriotic cast, and they expect God will forgive their sins. They think He will recognize the merging of this self-interest with a new, national conception of the common good. (Jaffa 41)
Yet, both historically and poetically, such blessings never materialize. English harmony, patriotism, and the common good have always found their expression in “God, King, and Country,” and in rejecting the first two the third is not far behind. “The folk are no longer unified by a common purpose; they can be flattered into consent by an ambitious monarch; faction rises against faction among the lords; what finally ensues is cousin against cousin and father against son” (Cowan 87). And so, righteous Carlisle’s blood cries out against those who refused to listen to his pleas. In the words of Bloom, “A long and bloody path leads from Richard to Henry VIII, a path on which Englishmen learn that kingship is founded on nobles and commoners as well as on God” (66).
Shakespeare’s Henriad is more than a tragic sort of historical fiction; it is a gem of political wisdom. Therein the poet reminds us of the classical valuation of politics as the means to true happiness in virtue. But he does not do so by lecturing didactically, much less by exalting what is honorable in human government. Instead, he shows the royalty of preceding generations at its worst, to make clear to his generation their own place in the providential order of things. In his presentation of such figures, we come to understand that Shakespeare holds neither to the camp of ‘divine right,’ nor that of ‘popular sovereignty.’ Instead, “Shakespeare’s paradigmatic regime requires only that those who possess authority also possess a high degree of practical wisdom and devotion to promoting the public good” (Alvis, “Introductory” 19). Yet Richard, Henry, and Hal never measure up to this ideal because of their own pride and perverted sense of justice; and both their souls and their kingdom pay the price.
We turn, then, to the first of our three kings. When Richard II opens, the threat of rebellion is already present, but from Thomas Mowbray rather than the later usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (who is first seen as the chief witness against Mowbray). Richard’s handling of this matter is at first ambiguous – he temporarily banishes both men – yet he seems to have good reason to worry. Richard notes the public’s mourning at Henry’s departure and how he appears to prey on the crowd’s sympathy (1.4.23-26). But while Richard banished his cousin from the kingdom, he cannot banish him from his thoughts. Instead, at the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes John’s property to ensure Henry can never inherit. But as the Duke of York warns (2.1.186-208), in a kingdom without lawful succession of father to son, not even the kingship is sacred. Bloom notes that, “the first two acts are intended to establish Richard as an evil king who deserves to lose his throne.” He continues,
He is shown to be a murderer, a thief, a wastrel surrounded by flatterers, lacking in all the familial pieties—a monarch without care or conscience. He is convicted before our eyes of all the accusations made against him, and this portrait is relieved by no charming features. Bolingbroke’s schemes are thereby given the color of justice. (Bloom 62; see our first post for works cited)
Yet only in the end do we see just how subtle Shakespeare’s views and purpose can be, as Cowan goes on to show:
We complete the play with compassion for Richard and with terror at the sacrilege committed against his person . . . . The play, finally, makes us see . . . that Richard has been a bad king who abused power, but that his deposing is an offense that could destroy all England. (Cowan 72)
Shakespeare thus proposes a third way to deal with a ‘bad king’: reform him. Throughout the play, Carlisle seeks to do just this, respecting the inherent authority of the office, while recognizing the imperfectability of the one who holds it (3.2.27-62). Character is the only sure foundation for leadership. The primary political purpose of Richard II, then, is to set forth “a thoroughly traditional English concept of the sacredness and authority of the office, with the king deemed answerable not only to parliament and law but to the higher powers of justice and love” (Cowan 77). Royal humility is therefore the key to royal character, noble support, and popular consent.
Yet Henry Bolingbroke learns this truth only too late. He returns early from his exile merely to regain his rightful inheritance (Richard II 2.3.128-135), but when he realizes that he has both the support of the people and the assembled strength of the nobles, he loses his initial humility and prudence, and overreaches his rightful station to seek the crown itself (4.1.113). His “just cause” becomes self-righteousness, which degenerates into self-interest and self-assertion. Thus, Richard II is a tale both of Richard’s hubris and of “Bolingbroke’s grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard’s having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule” (Bloom 59). Just as Richard is condemned for murder, theft and pride, Henry founds his reign on pride, murder and hypocrisy, and thereby commits moral and political suicide.
And by deposing the king and showing pleasure at his murder (Richard II 5.6.40) he removes all traditional grounds of legitimacy. “It is ridiculous to suppose that Henry can command instinctive loyalty. That is exactly his problem. Attachment to him must be born of wisdom, beneficence, and strength, for he is beginning afresh without the sanctions which were available to Richard” (Bloom 67). Henry has founded his reign upon violence, and so violent he must be, or else lose the authority he has seized. Henry finds that he cannot rely solely on the conservative customs of monarchy, nor on the filial obligation owed to him as king, so he must instead provide an outlet for his violent nature as well as a means to fulfill the expectations of his subjects. So at the close of Richard II, the newly crowned king finds himself drawn to the Crusades:
Just as Henry does not try to restrain that [violent] impulse in himself, his political program aims not at restraining his subjects but rather at channeling their violence outward toward foreigners. Peace is not his goal but rather a ‘well-beseeming’ foreign war which will remove the destruction from England, and from Henry himself. (Trafton 101)
Henry seeks to avoid the consequences of his actions at home by seeking glory and honor at the expense of other peoples. Unfortunately, for both Henry and for England, “Rebellion engenders rebellion” (Trafton 103), and so the subject of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 is a three-pronged uprising that is far more costly for Henry and his country than he could have possibly imagined. But while such consequences are not intentional, they are preventable. Pride can be temporarily overcome by greater pride, but such a victory comes with greater consequences as well. Richard’s pride leads to the death of a king; Henry’s pride nearly destroys a nation.
Henry’s eldest son, Henry Monmouth, provides our final example of the moral and political causes and consequences of rebellion. Richard hides himself beneath the veil of divine right, regardless of his injustice. Henry Bolingbroke, does his best to keep up the conventional customs so that he might at least appear to be just. Henry Monmouth, however, follows a third path: he knows what it means to be just, but waits for the perfect moment to reveal just how just he can be. Prince Hal reveals his intent in the second scene of 1 Henry IV.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
To Hal, then, “justice” is merely a tool to control the masses, to unite the affections of his people to himself as an individual, rather than to his royal office. Hal therefore rejects both Richard’s arrogant self-righteousness and Henry’s proud piety and turns to naked, self-willed pragmatism.
Yet here, Hal merely exemplifies what has already been implied by the examples of his immediate predecessors: you cannot be just without doing what is right and doing it for the right reasons. Each of these kings struggles in his own way with an understanding of justice that “would subordinate all his actions, public or private, to the good of England” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 117). But once this natural and divine standard is rejected one can only turn inwardly, for to reject good government is to reject its sacramental reflection of a higher reality. To the mind of the young prince, “God will favor Henry not because he is king but because he is Henry” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 118). But Hal receives no such favor. When confronted with his sins, Richard repents but loses his kingdom, Henry regrets but loses his soul, and Hal languishes on, neither penitent nor sorrowful, master of many but slave to all.
William Shakespeare is perhaps the single greatest writer in the English language. His themes and his characters stand both as representatives of his own age as well as windows into ours. Such timelessness allows each generation to see something of itself in his work, leading to a realm of study and enjoyment that is in a perpetual state of flux. One trend, which has emerged within the last generation or so, reveres Shakespeare not only for his affective power as a poet, but also for his wisdom as a philosopher, particularly in his views on things political. That politics is a concern for Shakespeare at all should be apparent by the subject of many of his plays, particularly his histories and tragedies, though even in a comedy like The Tempest we glimpse something political.
Yet Shakespeare is neither a political pundit nor an artist with an axe to grind. Instead, he views politics in the classical sense, “in terms of education, manners, morals, religion, and ethics” (Alvis, Introductory 8), an emphasis supported by his repeated use of Greek, Roman, and Christian sources throughout his works (Alvis, Introductory 5). Of his several works, The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) is particularly conducive to such an emphasis. Throughout these plays, Shakespeare presents the causes and consequences of rebellion in a way that invites us to delve into the religious and moral aspects of what is now regarded as a purely political act. Our discussion here will examine these aspects by focusing on the character of each of these kings before tracing the consequences of their choices for the kingdom as a whole.
In modern democracies, such as our own, politics and religion maintain distinct and distant spheres. Yet for the audience of Shakespeare’s day, government was always religious (even sacramental) in its form and function. Toward the end of Richard II, a parliament has convened to try and convict Richard of crimes against the nation so that Henry Bolingbroke might assume the throne “Without suspicion” (4.1.157). The king’s only defense comes from the aged and loyal Bishop of Carlisle:
What subject can give sentence on his king?
Carlisle begins by invoking the nobles’ sense of justice. Any one of them would cry foul if he were summarily arrested, prosecuted and executed by the authorities. The bishop, however, is not merely concerned with the illegality of their actions; he reminds them that their relationship to the king is divinely sanctioned. God Himself has providentially set Richard on the throne, placed him as their lord and master, and has set them under his authority. To remove Richard from the throne is to usurp God Himself and to deny His authority and their need for His favor.
Here, Carlisle draws on the teachings of the apostle Paul himself, a passage commonly used throughout history as prima facie evidence for the ‘divine right’ of kings:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Rom 13:1-2 NKJV)
In other words, our outward submission is indicative of an inward reverence; when we submit to the authorities, our soul is in harmony with God’s providential will. But as is seen in the sentence that follows, the opposite is also true: outward resistance indicates a disorder of the soul, a rejection of God’s will both for the individual and the community—both of which incur judgment. Rebellion, then, says as much about the rebel as it does about the ruler.
2017 State of the Bible
American Bible Society
The Earliest Example of Christian Hymnody
Congregational Singing in the Early Church
Everett Ferguson, For Acapella
How the Medieval Church Read Through the Bible
Michael Marlowe, Bible Research
How Communal Singing Disappeared from the US
Karen Loew, The Atlantic
The Top 100 Classic & Contemporary Hymns
Demian Farnworth, Fallen + Flawed
Uncovering a 1,500 Year-Old Church Building
Daniel Esparza, Aleteia
Worship in the Early Church
Christian History Magazine
Over the last few weeks we have surveyed some of the ethical content contained in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). We have discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” we have unpacked its religious character, and we have seen how such forthrightness might clash with social expectations. Yet when we left Gawain on his third and last day at Sir Bertilak’s castle, the good knight believes himself to have done quite well against his hostess’s advances. He has remained faithful to his host not only by mitigating the dishonorable intentions of the lady but also by returning to that man the kisses he won each day from the lips of that man’s wife!
Yet here is Gawain at his most vulnerable point in the work: in the rush of victory. “At the moment when Gawain believes he has safely emerged from his ordeal for the last time, the lady launches an attack more difficult to recognise or resist” (Winny 149; see our first post for works cited). She implores him to accept from her a token of unfulfilled love but when he refuses it, she instead offers him a girdle or belt that can strengthen his body to sustain the blow he is to receive the next day. “For whoever is buckled into this green belt, / As long as it is tightly fastened about him / There is no man on earth who can strike him down, / For he cannot be killed by any trick in the world” (SGGK 1851-1854). The lady therefore follows up her obvious assault upon Gawain’s virtue with a subtler tactic, appealing to the knight’s fear of impending death rather than his natural desire for carnal pleasure. After all, what is more right than seeking to preserve a life, even one’s own? But can he accept the girdle with her added stipulation not to reveal it to her husband that evening? For the first time, Gawain breaks one of his compacts. As Engelhardt notes, by accepting the girdle,
Gawain was enabled to appease her and thus conveniently to preserve his reputation for courtesy toward women. But in that very act he proved ungenerous, and therefore discourteous, to her husband; he sinned against piety and derogated his valor . . . . Thus Gawain had willfully placed himself in a new dilemma; he could not fulfill one compact without breaking the other. (222)
Yet there is something more at stake here. To this point in the plot, Gawain has sought protection and strength through his faith alone. By accepting the girdle, not only is he acting out of disdain for his host, but perhaps even for the Lord Himself:
As he goes to his fate, he is faced with conscious choice between the dictates of self-interest and Christian honor—between faith in Christ and Mary that he will be saved by grace, or at least granted the courage necessary to end his life with dignity and moral perseverance, and faith in himself that he will be able through his own wits either to prepare himself in such a way as to be invulnerable to the knight’s ax blow or to avoid the confrontation altogether. (Champion 416)
Accepting the girdle therefore violates every one of the five senses of trawthe represented by the pentangle. Just as “the pentangle on Gawain’s shield [is] a symbol of truth . . . the green sash is a symbol of falsehood” (Champion 421). He has determined to face the Green Knight not in courage but through deception; he has broken his agreement with the host to trade his winnings at the end of each day; he has denied the spiritual strength given by Christ through Mary; and he has surrendered his character for the sake of courtesy and his reputation. In the words of Myer, “His acceptance of the girdle, normally an item worn by a knight in tournament and therefore part of chivalric array, will ironically strip him of his internal virtues.”
This new reliance on the girdle above the faith and fidelity represented by the pentangle (the five-pointed star which adorns his shield) is seen in the manner in which Gawain arms himself. Not only is the account of his rearmament absent of any mention of that star, but the placement of the girdle seems to remove it from sight completely. “The implications is that in wearing the green girdle over his red surcoat (lines 2035-6), Gawain gives it pride of place over the pentangle (the symbol of his trawthe), and possibly that the pentangle is actually hidden by it” (Anderson 313). Even as he prays to God for deliverance, then, he is in fact “not relying on God but on the belt to save him” (Winny 152). It therefore comes as quite a shock to Gawain when the Green Knight reveals the cause for the scar he has given him at the Green Chapel. Arthur’s knight immediately understands his fault. “Gawain accuses himself of cowardice because fear for his life led him to accept the girdle from the lady, and covetousness because he kept the girdle instead of giving it to his host” (Anderson 314). Yet in spite of these things, the Green Knight seems more than willing to forgive him.
Bertilak acknowledges Gawain’s fault, but considers Gawain absolved of it (2395–99), and although Gawain lacks absolute perfection, he is still pre-eminent among other knights ‘in god fayth’ – which may mean both the good faith with which Bertilak is speaking and also the quality in which Gawain surpasses other knights. (McCarthy 305)
But how can Gawain maintain his prominence among other knights in the face of this humiliating revelation of his untrawthe? For an answer, McCarthy replies simply that “If Gawain fails in his trawthe in concealing the girdle, his subsequent actions prove that his fear of death has caused him to lapse, not to abandon his trawthe entirely” (McCarthy 304). Forgiveness, sought through confession and repentance, is the knight’s only path back to virtue. For this reason, Champion interprets this final scene with the Green Knight in terms of grace. Since “Gawain’s fault in accepting the protective girdle is clearly presented . . . in Christian terms . . . it behooves us to consider the Christian conditions under which the poet wrote,” namely, “whether salvation is achieved by divine grace or by human merit” (Champion 415). He continues:
In effect, Gawain’s devious attempts to save himself have been ignominiously exposed as shameful and worthless. Both the scar on his neck . . . and the sash which he now insists upon wearing outwardly as a symbol of his guilt and subsequent repentance . . . betoken his dependence upon an outside force superior to his own for his personal and spiritual safety . . . . Indeed, his fellow knights insist upon donning similar green sashes to betoken their gladness and to acknowledge their analogous human condition and dependence upon grace for salvation. (416-417)
Engelhardt adds that this is the poet’s intention from the very beginning. “The moral of his poem is not merely that man should curb his fear or rein his lust or keep his word” but that “the pride of magnificent kings, or gray-eyed queens . . . is illusory” (Engelhardt 224).
The pentangle is a symbol full of meaning both morally and spiritually. It is the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that it conveys the ideal of the complete man as depicted in Gawain himself. Yet even after the pentangle is removed from sight, its characteristics are seen in the trials Gawain faces and the choices he makes throughout the remainder of the poem. Clearly, the story could be taken at face value but there is a meaning that requires more than a superficial reading. “Thus, while there is no consistent allegorical level to which all significant details in the narrative cohere, the poet uses symbols to express moral values through the literal story” (Champion 425). He reminds us of the values of a martial society, of the importance of the spoken word, of a faith that transcends earthly circumstances, of one’s need for a consistent character, and (perhaps most of all) that in the end, we simply can’t do it by ourselves.
In the summer of 2015 we ran a series of posts on American religion by the numbers, how we as Christians should be preparing for exile in the post-Christian age, and Rod Dreher's idea of The Benedict Option. Later on, we addressed what this means for the church and for Christian civics. This week, we pick up where we left off, with several reviews of Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). I've also created a new category so you can follow our discussion of the Body of Christ in one thread.
The Benedict Option's Vision for a Christian Village
Rod Dreher, Christianity Today
Becoming Redemptive Change Agents
Robert Osburn, Wilberforce Academy
The Centurion Option: Not Retreat, but Engagement
James Mikolajczyk, Christian Origins, Modern Faith
Living Comunally in God’s Good Creation
David T. Koyzis, First Things
Thinking Locally & Historically
Alan Jacobs, First Things
Tough Questions, Tougher Answers
Rowan Williams, The New Statesmen
Demonstrating the Beauty of The BenOp
Rod Dreher, The American Conservative
As the plot progresses in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the poet reminds the hero of his sacred charge: “Now take care, Gawain, / Lest fear hold you back / From leaving on the quest / You have sworn to undertake” (SGGK 487-490; see our first post for works cited). Unfortunately, a year later Gawain makes this very mistake. He remembers his oath and departs Arthur’s court seeking the Green Chapel and the fate that awaits him there. Outwardly, he shows no fear in his departure; “He did not linger there, / But swiftly went his way” (SGGK 687-688). What fear he has is not in the trials that await him but the eternal echoes of his deeds in life. And as he defends himself against the wiles of the wilderness, he remembers well his faith and fidelity. He then rides “through the realm of England, / Sir Gawain, in God’s name, though he found it no pleasure . . . . And [with] no one but God to talk to on the way” (SGGK 691-692, 696). And though he meets many dark creatures throughout his journey, each time he triumphs not through his own strength, but through faith and hope. “Had he not been valiant and resolute, trusting in God, / He would surely have died or been killed many times” (SGGK 724-725).
Weariness, however, eventually sets in. The knight is worn down, burdened by the cold, lonely quest that is set before him. And through such weariness, the first hint of doubt sets in, doubt in his ability to follow through with his promise. This doubt, though, has not eliminated his faith in God. He rides until Christmas Eve and then, having lost his last bit of strength, he seeks divine aid.
And therefore sighing he prayed, ‘I beg of you, Lord,
His faith therefore provides him strength, and while immediate physical comfort is still distant, his hope stands firm. The prayers he prays were familiar to the readers of the poet’s own age, especially his adjuration of Christ’s blood. This expression is, “A phrase from the Primer, the more-or-less standard elementary school textbook from which children in the later middle ages first learned to read, where it is associated with the Paternoster [Latin Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, Mat 6:9-13], Ave Maria, and Creed (cf. lines 757-8). Children in school would say the phrase and these three devotions, the first ones to be learned, before reciting the alphabet” (Anderson 309).
It is at this moment that respite comes. “Hardly had he crossed himself, that man, three times, / Before he caught sight through the trees of a moated building” (SGGK 763-764). The arrival at Bertilak’s castle is clearly intended to delight both the knight and the reader. “There is a sense of the miraculous about the sudden appearance of the castle, an indication perhaps that Gawain has indeed received supernatural help in his search for the green chapel, a search which in realistic terms he has little hope of bringing to a successful conclusion unaided” (Anderson 309). Yet the sudden splendor of the building may just as likely represent the first of the subtle deceptions Gawain is to suffer throughout his sojourn. It persuades him to let his guard down, to relax, to grow complacent. “If the glow of life within the gracious castle made temptation the more insidious, this was but a reminder that man must not presume upon divine mercy, that his experience of mercy must not relax his vigilance any more than the apparent severity of justice must occasion despair” (Engelhardt 224). Just as faith strengthens the knight on his journey, fidelity should alert the hero to any assaults upon his integrity. But the potential for temptation does not even occur to our hero, instead, he “graciously takes off his helmet, and devoutly thanks / Jesus and St Julian [the patron saint of hospitality; Winny 145], who kindly are both, / Who had treated him courteously, and listened to his prayer” (SGGK 773-775).
Once inside, Gawain receives a warm welcome, and is granted a great freedom by the lord of the keep. “He said, ‘You are welcome to do as you please / With everything here: all is yours, to have and command / as you wish’ ” (SGGK 835-837). Yet once again, the devil lurks just beneath the surface. To check this freedom requires an even greater reliance on his faith and fidelity, an increased effort that seems unlikely given his long travels and comfortable accommodations. The words of his host may also imply an even darker meaning. “This courteous encouragement to make use of everything at yowre wylle may hint at the freedom later offered to Gawain by the lady” of the house (Winny 145).
Gawain is further disarmed (literally and figuratively) by the behavior of other residents of the castle. “There he was stripped, with joking remarks, / That knight, of his mail-shirt and his fine clothes” (SGGK 860-861). The armor he puts off is heavy and as it is removed, off come the burdens of his quest and the vigilance of his virtue. Each of them longs to be with him and learn from him, knowing well the legends surrounding his name. He is,
the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
His reception, then, is that of a hero’s, but not merely or even primarily because of his mighty deeds, but rather because of his skill in speech. “Gawain is excitedly welcomed not as a renowned warrior but as the recognized authority on cultural behaviour, especially luf-talkyng 927, flirtatious chat” (Winny 146). There are two elements of foreshadowing at work here. The first is the downplaying of Gawain’s courage, which ultimately fails him, while the second is the luf-talkyng he shares with Lady Bertilak herself, which provides just such an opportunity for his fall.
Like every other aspect of the castle, the agreement Gawain makes with Bertilak seems innocent enough. As Bertilak suggests:
You shall stay in your bed and lie at your ease
Here, then, Gawain has an opportunity to display the trawthe represented in the pentangle; an exercise in full disclosure and candor to determine what the knight’s life looks like as an open book. “The exchange of winnings contest exemplifies the poem’s insistence on the relationship between inner and outer in its demand that the private be made public: that the events that take place in Gawain’s bedchamber should be reenacted each evening in the public space of the hall” (McCarthy 301).
Up to this point, the fair-minded reader can understand why Gawain expects nothing but good from this place. He is staying in a well-set castle with a gracious host, flattering servants, and a beautiful lady with whom he may freely and innocently converse. What more could the good knight ask for? The poet, however, warns both Gawain and the reader of the coming deceit in his description of the lady’s entry to the knight’s bedchamber the first morning of hunting.
And as he lazily dozed, he heard slily made
Clearly, these are not the winnings Gawain pledged to his host the night before. As if her behavior does not convince us of her intentions, her words this same morning certainly should. When Gawain offers to put on “proper dress” so they might chat, the lady rejects his suggestion and promises “something better” (SGGK 1220, 1223).
I shall tuck you in here on both sides of the bed,
Yet talking seems to be only the beginning of her plans for the trapped knight. The second half of this response is especially telling. It recalls Solomon’s account of a similar lady. One night a young fool walks by the king’s window, turns the corner, and heads toward a neighborhood known for its less than righteous activities.
And there a woman met him,
Yet unlike that young fool (vv. 21-23), Gawain is “not unmindful of his devotion to Mary nor “the hereafter awaiting the man that dies in mortal sin” and therefore he sees through this first direct temptation (Engelhardt 221). So why, then, does the knight not flee the chamber like righteous Joseph, leaving his clothes behind yet preserving his integrity (see Gen 39:7-18)? Quite simply, because that is not the polite thing to do; any temptation, even one such as obvious as this, is to be deflected rather than denied. “His code made him reject as sinful the love of another man’s wife . . . yet he must manage this rejection with humility and forbearance, with tact and a light touch” (Engelhardt 222; original citations omitted). So instead, for three days the knight afflicts his soul with the guile of the seductress. Just as she “Waited there strangely long to see when he would wake” (SGGK 1194), Gawain seeks to endure the temptation passively rather than flee the situation and risk insult or injury. Yet seduced he will be.
Last week we discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” using the description of Gawain’s character by way of the five-pointed star (or pentangle). But in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) trawthe also has a more specific meaning in the work of the poet, which he expounds on by illustrating the significance of each of the five interlocking lines of the unending knot:
First he was judged perfect in his five senses,
The first pentad that the pentangle represents seems simple enough and would appear not to require any additional commentary. Most scholars apparently agree since, of the various authorities consulted for my own efforts here, only McCarthy even mentions this first five and then only to say that the poet’s reference to them “is in accordance with the pentangle’s overall symbolizing of trawthe in conveying a sense of general integrity or righteousness” (McCarthy 297; internal citations omitted). This explanation, however, is not what we would expect given the remaining pentads, in which the Gawain poet consistently uses symbolism. Instead, the poet may be pointing not only to senses in general, but to the heightened senses of a knight engaged in hand-to-hand combat, a fate for which Gawain is at that moment preparing himself, perhaps with divine aid. As King David himself once sang, “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle” (Psa 144:1; see 18:34; 2Sa 22:35). However, since nothing else in context seems to recommend any particular interpretation, I offer this one tentatively.
The second pentad is slightly more conducive to interpretation. Though a number of views may be expressed here, it is McCarthy’s that is most persuasive. He believes with Franklin that the mention of Gawain’s fingers in line 641 may be “an indirect reference to the folding of fingers as . . . exemplifying another sense of trawthe, that of ‘faith or loyalty as pledged in a promise or agreement,’” a view that is consistent with other passages throughout the work (McCarthy 298). For example, consider one of Bertilak’s final exhortations before leaving Arthur’s court: “See, Gawain, that you carry out your promise exactly, / And search for me truly, sir, until I am found, / As you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights” (SGGK 448-450). Gawain, then, is an honest man whose trustworthiness and faithfulness as a party to an agreement will be tested to see if his word is truly his bond.
The third of these fives introduces a new element to Gawain’s integrity that is elsewhere only implied or mentioned in passing: his religious faith. Anderson lists the five wounds of Christ as His “nail wounds in hands and feet [and His] spear-wound in the side,” noting that these “are a usual medieval devotional subject” (308). The account of these five wounds may be noted from the Gospel of John. When Jesus was crucified (John 19:23), the Romans nailed His hands (specifically His wrists) to the cross to support His upper body. To secure His legs, the Romans would have laid one over the other and driven a larger spike through both feet (specifically His ankles), thereby creating not one but two wounds (see John 20:24-29). The fifth wound was inflicted postmortem to ensure His removal from the cross prior to the Jewish Passover, which was to begin at sunset:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:31-34)
Thus it is in the physical existence of Jesus Christ and the power of His crucifixion that our knight’s “earthly faith” and selfless courage resides.
The fourth pentad both “derives from the third” and adds another dimension to this faith (McCarthy 298). Anderson identifies these five joys of Mary as “the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection [and] Ascension of Christ [as well as the] Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven,” another common “medieval devotional subject” (Anderson 308). The Christian origin of these first four joys is clear from the New Testament itself (see Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-20; 24:1-12, 50-53). The fifth, however, adds a specifically Catholic color to Gawain’s profession, rooted in an ancient belief in Mary’s own reception into Heaven (rather than a natural death). But how does this explain Gawain’s behavior toward Mary’s image? Why does he look to her in hope of deliverance? Hardman provides us the answer:
The connection between Gawain’s looking at the image of the Queen of Heaven and his unfailing valour is more than a boost to his morale such as a knight might gain from glancing at a picture of his lady before going into battle . . . . It recalls the promises frequently attached to Marian devotions, assuring the faithful of her help, especially at the hour of death, a number of which stipulate that the devotion is to be practised while looking at an image of the Blessed Virgin. (Hardman III)
It is therefore clear that to our poet the truly complete man is a man of faith, which even a cursory reading of SGGK or the poet’s other assumed works (Pearl, Cleanness or Patience) will tell us. What is perhaps more striking at first, however, is the application given in context. Rather than demonstrate Gawain’s faith through his observance of the traditional feasts or his daily prayer, the poet points to Gawain’s bravery and “fortitude” in battle. “Gawain’s courage is linked to his faith,” an emphasis “appropriate for the quest which Gawain undertakes, for it is a brief lapse in his courage in the face of death . . . that causes Gawain to accept and conceal the green girdle in breach of his agreement with Bertilak” (McCarthy 298; internal citations omitted). Like previous concepts associated with the pentangle, this relationship between faith and courage is also adapted from the New Testament. Compare the poet’s faith and imagery with the words of the apostle Paul:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph 6:10-13)
Though Gawain’s enemies are physical as well as spiritual, faith is the key to his strength and the assurance of his victory, if not in life, then in death.
The final pentad is the first and only grouping that raises the moral significance of the symbol to explicit terms. Here, our poet lists five of Gawain’s more attractive qualities: generosity, love of fellow-men, purity, courtesy, and compassion. Four of these five virtues are directed toward others while only one focuses on the kind of internal consistency that represents the heart of full trawthe. Engelhardt, however, places less significance on these individual traits than he does on their respective functions.
Since, however, the five virtues assigned to Gawain in that dilatation are not determinative or even quite discriminable, it has seemed more apt in this analysis to consider his predicament rather in terms of the three virtues that would govern the three domains of activity, the military, the religious, and the courtly, in which the complete knight, the veritable man, might demonstrate his perfection, or, as the poet has named it, his trawthe. These virtues shall be called valor, piety and courtesy. (Engelhardt 219)
In either case, with either five virtues in mind or with three, Gawain is soon seen as a good, but conflicted man: what may be brave, may not be best; what may be right, may not be couth; what may be socially acceptable, may be far from courageous. This final sense of trawthe as “integrity,” is therefore about a balance between equally important, yet equally demanding aspects of one’s character, an ambiguity that forebodes future conflict for good Sir Gawain.
The pentangle, then, is the embodiment of the ideal of integrity. But this integrity is no accident. It arises from faith in the Son of God, looks to Him for comfort and courage, focuses his senses in the heat of battle, exhorts him to remain true to his word, and refines the habits of mind and body in order to shape his character. And in Gawain “these noble five / Were more deeply implanted . . . than any other” (SGGK 654-655). As McCarthy comments, “The quality of trawthe that Gawain embodies then is synonymous with the quality of nobility that all of the second estate should aspire to in order to justify their noble status and reputation” (300). The implicit question the poet asks is therefore whether such a standard is even possible. But what soon becomes clear, is that “The tests that Gawain faces . . . are profoundly related to the qualities that he has been shown to possess in the poem’s explanation of the pentangle’s symbolism” (McCarthy 299).
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) the poet depicts the latent strengths of Gawain’s character—and therefore the basis of his noble reputation—in terms of the armor in which he is clothed. Prior to departing Arthur’s keep, “In armour as he was, he went to hear mass / Offered and celebrated for him at the high altar” (SGGK 592-593; see our first post for works cited). Many of those courtiers prayed for Gawain’s safe return, but most mourned his tragic fate knowing that no man could survive a blow from one who had walked away holding his own severed head. But any wariness Gawain himself felt is hidden beneath the panoply with which he is armed:
Then Gawain seizes his helmet and kisses it quickly,
The virtue within is therefore seen through the beauty and strength displayed without: his readiness for combat, his perfection in prudence, and his respect for female gentility and skill. Yet at this juncture, the poet is far less eager to carry on the tale and instead “delays” Gawain’s fate, wanting to ensure that the reader truly grasps the gravity and grace of this knight:
Then they brought out the shield of shining gules,
So what of this five-pointed star, the pentangle? Why does the poet halt the story for forty-three lines to explain it to the reader? He obviously believes that “the symbol of the pentangle is . . . indispensable to the understanding of the poem,” as well as our appreciation of Gawain’s character (Engelhardt 218). The symbolism here, then, is primarily moral rather than mathematical: “As the pentangle may be drawn in one continuous movement, so it becomes the symbol of the complete man, whose integrity admits no imperfection; and it is this integrity in Gawain which the poem will show to be more apparent than real” (Engelhardt 218).
Gawain’s shield, like that of any medieval knight, serves two purposes: “declaring the bearer’s identity” and “warding off attack” (Hardman I). By placing the image of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield the poet thus seeks to identify Gawain as a man of integrity and to intertwine the shield’s protective power with Gawain’s own moral strength. As long as Gawain relies on his faith and fidelity he is protected, while any departure from these will endanger him both physically and spiritually. The poet reinforces this connection through the material used for the pentangle itself, “pure gold.” Gold is a “traditional image of moral purity” deeply rooted in the medieval mind, particularly through their contact with ancient Jewish and Christian sources (Anderson 307). For example, during the height of Job’s trials his friends provide him little comfort, yet aware of his own integrity and the righteousness of God’s judgment, he is not without hope. For “He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10 NKJV; see Pro 17:3; 27:21; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3). Anderson also points to a similar usage in an apocryphal work from the intertestamental period: “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men [are tried] in the furnace of humiliation” (Ecclesiasticus 2:5 in Anderson 307). This test or trial may not always appear to be positive, but those who are acceptable to God understand that trials may not only be a cause for growth, but for joy as well. As the apostle Peter would later write:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1Pe 1:6-7; see 1Co 13:12-13; Rev 3:18)
The overall meaning of the pentangle is therefore one of “fidelity,” as Winny translates the Middle English trawthe (or troth). The word has a variety of meanings, of which the most obvious is “truth,” with all its related connotations. “It embraces the concepts of loyalty, honour, fidelity and integrity. The last sense is especially important in the poem in the light of the way in which the poet explains the unity of the pentangle figure” (Anderson 307). Just as the continuously-drawn star is an organic whole that relies upon the unity and strength of each part, “the virtue of trawthe, as the poet presents it, is made up of all the other virtues, so that if Gawain should fail in any one respect then all his integrity (and therefore all his chivalry) is gone” (Anderson 307). As the poet writes,
Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,
Trawthe is therefore concerned not merely with believing the truth or speaking the truth, but being (as we would say) “tried and true” through the consistent application of truth in thought, word, and deed. This later correspondence is especially pertinent to the trials Gawain will face throughout his quest. “The poem’s testing of renown through the testing of Gawain’s embodiment of trawthe suggests that the two should be related: that excellence in reputation should correspond to nobility of character, and this is clearly the case here” (McCarthy 301).
For this definition of trawthe, the poet again draws on a common biblical idiom. When Yahweh looks down on the wickedness and evil intent of His creation, He finds one on whom He may bestow His favor. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” since he “was a just man, perfect [Hebrew tamim] in his generations. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:8-9; see Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). In other words, he is a righteous and godly man of integrity. Later Solomon (the “designer” of the pentangle himself) employs a related term to make the same point and to teach one of its benefits: “The righteous man walks in his integrity [Hebrew tom]; His children are blessed after him” (Pro 20:7). And centuries later, the idiom is used once more by the half-brother of Christ to demonstrate an aspect of trawthe that rises repeatedly in SGGK (such as, at line 369): “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect [Greek teleios] man, able also to bridle the whole body” (Jam 3:2; see Eph 4:13; Col 1:28). In each of these passages, integrity is about the completion, the perfection, and the attainment of truth in our inner and outer being. And it is from this common religious and moral heritage that our poet draws the moral significance of the pentangle.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, epic poetry is a genre that has not only peaked my personal interests but is also perhaps the most conducive to the sort of ethical reflection needed in our modern, science-driven culture. But (perhaps in part because of that very reason) it also the least studied (at least, outside the classroom). After all, as many might ask, what good are stories about magic and wizards and dragons, when we have reason, science, and so many of our own pressing problems to address right here and now?
The first of these works to catch my eye years ago was the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At first glance, SGGK is just another one of these fantastical tales, and even worse, of that sub-genre that has revolved for centuries around King Arthur and his legendary knights. Yet Gawain’s experience is not about victory over monsters (though there are several mentioned), nor about his prowess on the battlefield (though his skill in combat is well known). Instead, there is a moral; a moral with a distinct religious and even Christian influence that forms the core of the poet’s views on our human condition. As Champion notes:
For, while Gawain is not . . . overtly didactic in tone, it is deeply imbued with Christian moral values and matters of contemporary Christian concern. So pervasive is this quality that critics now conclude that the author “was thoroughly familiar with the trends of religious concepts” and had read considerably “in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and throughout the theological treatises of the patristic writers.” (413)
These underlying theological and ethical concepts become increasingly clear not only through the primary narrative of our hero’s quest, but also in the “moral themes arising from the poet’s use of symbolism and allegory” (Champion 413). It is my purpose here to examine the specific symbolism of Gawain’s pentangle—the five-pointed star which adorned his shield—to demonstrate the primacy of trawthe not only in the character of Gawain himself but also in the trials that he faces on his quest.
We are introduced to Gawain in the main hall of Arthur’s castle, where the members of the Round Table have gathered for their annual Christmas feast. Gawain’s placement at the table indicates for us his relatively high standing among his peers: “There good Gawain was seated beside Guenevere” (SGGK, line 109). Though modern readers are more familiar with the later prominence enjoyed by Lancelot (that is, prior to his betrayal), “early Arthurian tradition” presented Gawain as “a mighty warrior”, “a paragon of courtesy,” and as “first in eminence amongst the knights” (303). The three essential elements of Gawain’s character are therefore implied by the tradition itself, in the words of Engelhardt, the virtues of “valor, piety and courtesy” (219). The poet then displays all three aspects of knight’s character, by way of his appeal to Arthur (his mother’s brother) to allow him to confront the Green Knight in the king’s stead:
‘I beg you in plain words
Here, Gawain is not merely addressing Arthur, but the reader as well, allowing us to see for ourselves his courage, reverence, and politeness. What we see, however, looks strange to our modern eyes. The knight is not merely waxing poetic, he seems to overdo these virtues, perhaps even exercising them to a fault. He clothes himself with a false humility and patronizes his master and host. So in our first scene with the knight, we see both the justification for Gawain’s renown in the Middle Ages, as well as the potential for the sort of lapse he suffers before returning to Arthur’s court.
Lord willing, we will continue our look at the character of Gawain next week by examining another of the poet’s devices: his description of the knight’s armor.
Over the past few weeks I’ve shared a bit about my favorite books, what reading has taught me, and a short-list of truly “great” writers. But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, these are all merely glimpses of what is truly good in our world and beyond. So this week I want to share with you some of my own areas of interest and how I plan to delve deeper into them.
You can organize my interests (very loosely!) under three headings: Ethics, Epics, and the Ekklésia (or Church). In fleshing out how I wanted to approach these subjects, some of these books simply fell into my lap, either as gifts from family and friends, or as free or discounted eBooks available from their publishers. But most of the fifty-two works below were pointed out to me by a handful of books I read the last few years (or even months!):
~ After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
~ Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro
~ The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
~ Early Christians Speak, Vol. 1 by Everett Ferguson
~ The Language of God by Francis Collins
After Virtue is preeminent on the list for three reasons. First, reading it last year, MacIntyre reminded me just how much I still have to learn; so many of the works listed under ethics are due to his influence. But he is also one of the reasons why I want to immerse myself in epic poetry. Much like Kirk, MacIntyre points out how ancient epics informed the virtues of heroic societies, the subject and title of his tenth chapter. So while many of the epics I’ve chosen were influenced by Lewis (That Hideous Strength) and Tolkien (The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, and The Story of Kullervo), MacIntyre has given me new reasons to read in that direction. Finally, MacIntyre is also the inspiration for Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which means that there’s not really an area I’m interested in that he hasn’t already thought and written about extensively.
The next two on the list really go hand-in-hand. I used Common Prayer for my daily devotionals in 2016, and I read though The Benedict Option this year in the first week after its release. Both demonstrate the need for the modern church to reclaim something she has lost through the ages in order to transcend our politics of lust and greed. But there are also several differences between the two perspectives, CP approaching things from the Left and The BenOp from the Right (see here and here). And yet there were four books recommended by both CP and The BenOp, which seem to merit my attention: The Rule of St. Benedict; Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon; and Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry.
But if I had to sum up the problems with both CP and The BenOp, it would be that they assume the wrong frame of reference for their diagnosis and prescriptions. Both try to recover the wisdom of the early church, but neither of them goes far enough back (only the fifth or sixth century). And that’s where Everett Ferguson comes in with Early Christians Speak. Ferguson combines representative quotes from the first three centuries of the church, organizes them by topic, and then discusses what this teaches us about being the church then and now. So far I’ve read about half of his monographs, and am hoping they eventually digitize his several edited works. He has also pointed me back to many other Restoration Movement writers, many of which are seen below.
Of these five works, though, the one that surprises me the most is still The Language of God. Francis Collins served previously as Director of the Human Genome Project and is currently the Director of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also a committed believer who has tried for over a decade to reduce the friction between the fields of religion and science. The connection between him and some of the works below is probably fairly obvious, like the last three under ethics (although ethics is actually where I disagree with him most). But Collins also draws extensively on Lewis (whom he calls his “familiar Oxford adviser”), as well as Augustine, both of whom appear below.
To illustrate how you can weave the Great Books and other good books into a course of reading, I’ve once again numbered the authors recommended in Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. Although each list is roughly chronological, I don’t necessarily plan on reading them that way. Books I plan on re-reading along the way have been marked with an asterisk (*).
10. The Republic of Plato, trans and ed. Allan Bloom
Plato’s Theory of Education by R.C. Lodge
11. Metaphysics, Rhetoric*, Poetics*, The Constitution of Athens, and Fragments, all attributed to Aristotle
Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray
32. City of God by Augustine
The Allegory of Love, Mere Christianity*, The Four Loves*, The Discarded Image, The Weight of Glory, Christian Reflections, Poems, and Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis
Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre
Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry
Embracing Creation by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson
The Faithful Creator by Ron Highfield
Reconciling the Bible and Science by Kirk Blackard & Lynn Mitchell
Beowulf*, trans. Seamus Heaney (alongside Tolkien’s commentary)
33. The Song of Roland
35. The Story of Burnt Njal
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Prose (or Elder) Edda
The Poetic Edda
The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Kalevala, ed. Elias Lönnrot
Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, forthcoming June 2017)
The Lord of the Rings* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Inheriting Wisdom, The Early Church and Today (Vol. 2), The Early Church at Work and Worship (Vols. 2 & 3), and Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses by Everett Ferguson
The Rule of St. Benedict
Life Together and Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon
Reviving the Ancient Faith and Reclaiming a Heritage by Richard T. Hughes
The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen
The Crux of the Matter and Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, by Douglas A. Foster et al.
Why They Left by Flavil R. Yeakley
Why We Stayed, ed. Benjamin J. Williams
Last week we discussed how reading the Great Books fosters the growth of “the moral imagination.” This week, we take a look at what I’ve come to call a glance at the Great Books, a list of forty-eight great authors and their best known works.
The authors and works listed below are those recommended by all three of the reading lists I consulted—Adler’s How to Read a Book, Bloom’s The Western Canon, and Fadiman and Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan--organized chronologically and numbered by Adler. For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these works into the conventional categories of Fiction and Nonfiction. Some of these writers belong in both categories, but to avoid redundancies I have included each author only on the list where I felt most readers would look for them.
We spoke last week mainly about Nonfiction: philosophy, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and civics. But this week I’d like to preface the list with some brief thoughts on Fiction. The list starts with Fiction for two reasons. On one hand, this corresponds closely with most people’s actual reading experience. As children we (hopefully!) began reading fiction for fun, and then later on shifted to reading for learning. But in an even deeper way Fiction stands first because, as Russell Kirk once said, “Fiction is truer than fact.” As he continues:
I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain—if at all—unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. I began to read Sir Walter Scott when I was twelve or thirteen; and I think I learnt from the Waverley novels, and from Shakespeare, more of the varieties of character than ever I have got since from the manuals of psychology.
And Fiction’s edifying role is not limited to the social sciences. “In certain ways, the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology.” Think for a moment of the Bible: God did not reveal himself to mankind merely through lengthy discourses (although there is much of that, about 24 of the 66 canonical books) but also in poetry (17 books) and narrative (25 books). In other words, the One who made us and knows us best reveals himself in a way that is not only good and true, but beautiful (Ecc 12:10). In the same way, the Great Books’ blend of poetry, prose, and discourse reflects the image of the Creator and His creation. So while a well-rounded education will certainly include some good, no-nonsense discourse, “miscellaneous browsing in the realm of fiction rarely does mischief,” and often does far more.
So as you take a glance at these great books, remember not to hold them as an end-all-be-all, but as a glimpse of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Instead, find something that interests you and dig in, let it shape how you see the world around you, and let it launch you onto other literary endeavors (whether those works made the list or not!)
Lord willing, next week we’ll continue with quick looks at some of my own areas of interest: ethics, epics, and the Christian ekklesia.
1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
3. The Oresteia by Aeschylus
4. The Theban Plays by Sophocles
6. The Baccae, Hippolytus, and Medea by Euripides
9. The Birds and The Clouds by Aristophanes
18. The Aeneid by Virgil
37. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
38. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
45. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
49. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
52. The Poetry and Plays of William Shakespeare
58. Areopagitica, Paradise Lost, and the Sonnets of John Milton
67. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
68. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
78. Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne
86. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89. The Poems of William Wordsworth
90. Biographia Literaria, Kubla Khan, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
91. Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen
93. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
99. Pére Goriot and Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac
101. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
105. The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens
109. Middlemarch by George Eliot
110. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
111. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
112. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
113. Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen
114. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
115. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
117. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. The Histories by Herodotus
7. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
10. The Dialogues of Plato
11. The Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics by Aristotle
17. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
32. Confessions by Augustine
40. The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli
47. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne
56. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
60. The Pensées of Blaise Pascal
61. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (which I plan to read chronologically alongside the Anti-Federalist Papers)
73. Candide and Letters on the English by Voltaire
82. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
103. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
107. Civil Disobedience and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
116. Pragmatism by William James
118. Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Wilhelm Neitzsche
~ Adler, Mortimer J. & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 1972. Print.
~ Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1994. Print.
~ Fadiman, Clifton & John S. Major. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th Ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.
~ Kirk, Russell. “The Moral Imagination.” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Majoring in the humanities was probably the best academic decision I ever made. I have always enjoyed reading, but what I soon found was that reading great books well doesn’t just entertain us or teach us useful facts. It helps us rely less on ourselves—with all of our faults and blind spots—by listening to and engaging the minds of others through their written works.
In other words, reading the great books helps realign ourselves with the wisdom of the ages, rather than the spirit of the age. As Russell Kirk often argued, what modern society requires is to reclaim “the moral imagination”—“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” and “aspires to … right order in the soul and … the commonwealth.” And, “To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”
Of course, true knowledge and true wisdom, comes only from above (Jam 3:17-18) and is revealed fully in Christ (Col 2:13) and in his word (1Co 2:6-16). But to grasp the difference between the wisdom of Man and the wisdom of God, it helps to understand something of them both. Ancient wisdom, then, serves as a good introduction into what God has revealed more explicitly in his word (which is just one reason why preachers should read good literature).
It was Mortimer Adler who first introduced me to the skills required to read well. One of the assigned readings in my first humanities course was his 1972 classic, How to Read a Book. In its pages Adler not only tells you how to do this well, he also gathers the experience of the ages in his list of 137 Great Writers and their greatest works.
But as Adler would also warn us, no list is the “end all, be all” of any education. Instead, I am reminded of the elegy offered by Fadiman and Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. By reading great books well, we begin “to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined” (xix). Of course, even this is merely a beginning:
Even after we have shared these thoughts, feelings, and images, we will still have much to learn: We all die uneducated. But at least we will not feel quite so lost, so bewildered. We will have disenthralled ourselves from the merely contemporary. We will understand something—not much, but something—of our position in space and time. We will know how we have emerged from our long human history. . . . Just as important, we will have acquired models of high thought and feeling. (Fadiman & Major xix-xx)
The question then becomes, Which list to use? I have some experience with three, but each is quite different from the others, often expressing the interests and views of its compiler. So Adler’s list reflects his extensive background in philosophy and Western civilization, and essentially stops with what had been recognized as ‘great’ by 1972. Clifton and Fadiman, Harold Bloom and Leland Ryken help immensely by adding many non-Western or newer works, but they are lighter on nonfiction than Adler’s (in fact, Ryken only includes two!).
Not surprisingly, however, some books make it onto three or even all four lists. And though I don’t think we should make too much of this (building a canon within the canon), these commonly-received works give us a good starting point for our literary endeavors. And though the resulting list is much shorter than the one thousand works recommended when these three lists are compiled, it still represents a substantive goal: fifty-three authors and over one hundred individual works.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll see what the resulting list looks like. Until then, check out Russell Kirk’s lecture, “The Moral Imagination,” which is still one of the best introductions to the ethical function of literature I’ve ever read. For the even braver soul, read slowly through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially chapter 10, “The Virtues of Heroic Societies.”
Current as of July 8, 2019
I fell in love with books before I could even read them. Some of my earliest and best memories are the times I spent in Granny’s lap with Dr. Seuss. And though the good doctor and I don’t get together much these days (our children prefer dragons, Jedi, and The Jesus Storybook Bible), my affection for books has only grown. So after an ill-fated semester as a student in Ancient and Classical History, I decided to ‘specialize’ (if it can be called that) in the humane letters. And having wrapped up another phase of my academic career, I’m glad to be returning to what I know best: the Good Book and the great books.
In previous updates to this list, I included just about everything—if I had read it, it was here. However, I decided to clean house, eliminating about 70 works in the process. To be retained a work had to be good (reading me as I read it), true (both informative and imaginative), and beautiful (a joy to read). And though there are still some hard reads that made the cut, each will hopefully (to paraphrase Kirk) stimulate your heart and mind for the proper study of the human condition, and point you further into “the deep things of God” (1Co 2:10).
So here are the books I’ve read and reread for entertainment and edification. And in case you’re looking for an even shorter list to start with, I’ve marked my top five with an asterisk (*).
Life Together Under the Word
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
The Big Story by Justin Buzzard
Churches in the Shape of Scripture by Dan Chambers
Common Prayer, eds. Shane Clairborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove & Enuma Okoro
The Confessions by Augustine
The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen
Early Christians Speak (esp. Vol. 1) by Everett Ferguson
*The ESV Study Bible, ed. Lane T. Dennis & Wayne Grudem
Follow Me: A Call to True Discipleship by Kevin W. Rhodes
A Letter to Marcellinus (On the Interpretation of the Psalms) by Athanasius
*Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Preface to The New King James Version
Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon
Simple Church by Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
Why Trust the Bible? by Greg Gilbert
Stories & the Moral Imagination
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Aeneid by Virgil
Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Iliad & The Odyssey by Homer
*The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Moral Imagination” by Russell Kirk
The Oresteia by Aeschylus
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, ed. Albus Dumbledore
The Theban Plays by Sophocles
Creation & the Wonders of Nature
The Classic Hundred Poems, ed. William Harmon
Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre
Early Christian Readings of Genesis One by Craig D. Allert
Embracing Creation by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson
Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, ed. J.B. Stump
Galileo’s Commandment: 2,500 Years of Great Science Writing, ed. Edmund Blair Bolles
Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins
Jesus, Beginnings, and Science by David & Kate Vosburg
The Language of God by Francis Collins
“Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany” by Galileo Galilei
*Surprised by Meaning by Alister McGrath
Wisdom & the Human Experience
*The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
Areopagitica by John Milton
“Armistice Day Address” by General Omar N. Bradley
Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher
Egypt, Greece and Rome by Charles Freeman
God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson
Grand New Party by Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
The Republic by Plato
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
“Washington’s Farewell Address,” with Alexander Hamilton
What the Bible Says About Refugees
Jesse Carey, Relevant Magazine
Loving Strangers: The Most Unpopular Bible Teaching?
Bobby Valentine, Wineskins
Where Should Christians Stand?
Bobby Ross Jr., The Christian Chronicle
An Open Letter to American Churches
Jon Foreman, The Huffington Post
The Moral Confusion of the Immigration Debate
Alastair Roberts, Alastair Adversaria
Starbucks Hiring Thousands of Military & Refugees
Originally posted Jan 22, 2016; Reposted on Jan 20, 2017
Adoption: What Joseph of Nazareth Can Teach Us about This Countercultural Choice
Russell Moore, Crossway
**Note: This page is the source of this picture and today's title.**
Adopting From Foster Care: 6 Fears That Aren't (Usually) True
Emma Davis, Today
The Altar of Molech
Fred Dominguez, Let God be Found True
The Liberal Theory of Justice Doesn't Support Abortion
Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online
The One and Only Culture War
J.D. Flynn, First Things
The Progressive Roots of the Pro-Life Movement
Daniel K. Williams, The New York Times
Roe v. Wade's 43-Year War on Blacks
Greg Morse, Desiring God
Sex is More AND Less Important Than You Think
Trevin Wax, The Gospel Coalition
There is No 'Pro-Life' Case for Planned Parenthood
Ross Douthat, The New York Times
Yes, Yale, Abortion is a Social Injustice
Matthew Gerken, First Things
Our Top 2016 Post: All of God's Children
Jon Burnett, In His Image
10 Inspiring Stories from 2016
Bobby Ross, Jr., The Christian Chronicle
Biblical Archaeology's Top Discoveries of 2016
Gordon Govier, Christianity Today
BioLogos' Top 2016 Post: A Response to the "Ark Encounter"
Deborah Haarsma, BioLogos
Top 10 Books of 2016 (Sort of...)
The Babylon Bee
How Jimmy Stewart Became George Bailey
Robert Matzen, The Wall Street Journal
The Disease of Being Busy
Omid Safi, On Being
6 Reasons You Seriously Need to Slow Down
Frank Powell, RELEVANT Magazine
7 Tips to Help Recognize When You're Wrong
Wes McAdams, Radically Christian
Why You Need to Try to Understand Other Perspectives
Wes McAdams, Radically Christian
The One Thing 'Tolerance' Can't Tolerate
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
The 7 Habits of Highly Depolarizing People
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest
Churches of Christ in Greece Minister to Syrian Refugees
Lynn McMillon, The Christian Chronicle
Today, Anne Frank Would be a Syrian Refugee
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America
Harold Shank & Robert Solomon, The Christian Chronicle
Are Police Reforms Contributing to Chicago's Spike in Gun Deaths?
The Editors, The National Review
What Cops Today Can Learn from a Roman Centurion
Jerry Taylor, The Christian Chronicle
Photo Essay: In Texas, Christians Join Hands for Racial Unity & to End Violence
Olaf Growald, The Christian Chronicle
Why a Green Beret is Standing with Kaepernick
Justin Charters, Independent Journal Review
Is Science "Awe"some for Christians?
Jeff Hardin, BioLogos
Antibiotic Resistance and How Mutations Develop New Genetic Information
Joel Duff, BioLogos
Serving God in the Struggle Against Cancer: An Interview with Larry Kwak
The Editors, BioLogos
Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change
Justin Gillis, The New York Times
8 Books on Caring for Creation
Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books
A Belated Happy Birthday to our National Parks
The Conservative Reform Network
Peter, the Hebrew Bible & The Hope of the World (2 Peter 3:1-13)
Bobby Valentine, Stoned-Campbell Disciple
My Prayer for the United States of America
Wes McAdams, Radically Christian
10 Things Christians Should Remember About the Election
Hunter Baker, Crossway
I Pledge Allegiance
Drew Hunter, Crossway
The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest
Former Navy SEAL Wins Governorship as Vets Head to Congress
Hope Hodge Seck, Military.com
The Electoral College Still Makes Sense Because We're a Republic, not a Democracy
Donna Carol Voss, The Federalist
President Trump's Agenda for His First 100 Days in Office
Amita Kelly & Barbara Sprunt, National Public Radio
Steven Pinker: The World Isn't Falling Apart...
Julia Belluz, Vox
...NASA: But Here's How it Will Eventually
Alex Brown, The Atlantic
America's Looming Fiscal Crisis
The Conservative Reform Network
Burden of Health-Care Costs Moves to the Middle Class
Anna Louie Sussman, The Wall Street Journal
Bernie May be Right: The Nordic Model of Health Care Works
Edwin G. Dolan, Huffington Post
The 20 Fastest Growing Jobs in America
Katie Sola, Forbes
When Capitalism Only Rewards Shareholders
Bruce Scott, PBS Newshour