The Hardest Course in the Humanities

Most of you know that while I’m appalled at what passes for the humanities today, I’m a huge supporter of the real teaching of them. Yesterday, at Powerline, Scott Johnson had some good news for us. This comes to us from Mark Bauerlein, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s out from behind their paywall, at least for the present. Do read it all.

For most of my professional life, the future of the humanities was a conceptual matter. That’s no longer the case. When enrollments are down, majors are down, funding and jobs are down, adjuncts are up, and departments are being closed, abstract debates over which new theory or interdisciplinary vision is on the rise don’t much count. When a formation as renowned as the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University is proposed for shutdown (it later was saved in modified form), we know that the prosperity of the humanities doesn’t rest with people at the top.

No, it depends on the people at the bottom, undergraduates who vote with their feet. If an English department’s chairman tells the dean, “We’ve got to hire someone in this new area of ____,” the dean replies, “But you can’t even get your existing courses half-filled.” If, however, a parent calls and grumbles, “I’m paying lots of money, and my daughter can’t get into any of the English classes she wants,” well, that calls for action.

It’s a situation that few humanities professors are equipped to overcome. Graduate school and assistant professorships don’t impel you to attract freshmen and sophomores. Instead you learn how to impress senior professors. But right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.

Hopefully, and their parents, at least indirectly, but it is true enough, it’s a somewhat competitive market. But what to do?

Nothing could be further from it than what W.H. Auden did at the University of Michigan in 1941. Auden had left England in 1939 and became for a time a visiting professor at Ann Arbor. He called his course “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” a timely theme in the days of mass killing and existentialist moods. Its syllabus resurfaced a few years ago and provoked much commentary on its mass of 6,000 pages of the most powerful and challenging literature in the canon: The Divine Comedy in full, four Shakespeares, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe BrothersKaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Auden even included nine operas. Opera in the 1940s was a popular art form, with millions of people tuning in each week to the Met’s Saturday broadcast, but it’s hard to imagine anything less consonant with millennials’ attention span than one of Wagner’s Teutonic enormities. Auden assigned three of them.

Sounds to me like a fascinating but quite difficult course, I’d have loved it, but it would surely cut into the time spent drinking and chasing girls. Continuing:

[..]  “Where on earth today would one find institutions or teachers or students so audacious as to attempt something similar?”

That question, in fact, appears on the syllabus of LTRS 3803, the first part of the two-semester, team-taught course at the University of Oklahoma that goes against all the conventional wisdom. It’s modeled on Auden’s course, with a few changes. The instructors — Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English — have spread it out over an entire year, and they’ve excised a few books (Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka). But they added The OdysseyThe AeneidBeowulfSirGawain and the Green KnightParadiseLostRobinsonCrusoePride and Prejudice, Nietzsche, InvisibleMan, and other 20th-century masterpieces such as Derek Walcott’s neo-Homeric epic Omeros. They dropped most of the operas but kept Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They speak frankly in the course description of taking “delight in the Western canon” and hold fast to themes of little currency in the research world: destiny, God and “the gods,” a meaningful life, authority.

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

Well, how about that!

[…]There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature. “This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Their attitude was enlivening. But the only thing that really matters is enrollment. “Will you sign up for next semester’s course?” I asked. “Definitely,” they replied, all of them. (This semester has 32 students enrolled, more than the original cap of 22 because many more petitioned to get in.)

(emphasis mine) The precise opposite of the bigotry of low expectations.

I advise the traditionalists to try the Oklahoma way. Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

I agree completely!!

Huzzah, Huzzah, Huzzah!

May this trend spread widely, and well. This is what the liberal arts are supposed to be all about.

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He is Risen Indeed!

This is not what Jessica had here, nor do I remember what it was, in any case, it is no longer available. I know however that this is her favorite contemporary Easter worship song so it will do. This is her post replying to mine published earlier. Enjoy! Neo

So it is here, the day of days!  For those of us who have observed some Lenten practice, there is almost a mixed feeling – having acquired the habit of giving up something, and taking something on, the challenge is not to give both up. It is some index of the society in which we live that where for Christians this is the greatest day of the year, the secular world, not really knowing what to do with it, prefers Christmas, which is more easily co-opted into a spend-fest.

He is Risen. What does that mean to each of us? We can only answer for ourselves, although each of us is an integral part of what it means because Jesus died for each of us. That, for me, is the truly awesome (in its real sense) part of the Easter message. As I prayed at the altar of repose on Thursday night, I knew that I’d have been one of those falling asleep in Gethsemane; on Good Friday amidst the funereal gloom of the Stations of the Cross, there was a sense that my sins were the stripes He bore; much as I flinched from them, it occurred to me to wonder whether I flinched so easily from occasions of sin? At the Easter Vigil last night, as the Church was bathed in light, there was that sense that all had now changed. It changed for us all when He said to the Father ‘thy will be done’; it can change for us when we follow His example.

I live in the UK, a particularly secular part of a secularising Continent; America has more of a sense of what this day means to mankind, and long may that be the case. For all the effects of the culture wars, America still has more Christians than anywhere outside of China, and Christianity is still vital. The shining city on the hill is no secular vision.

Yet, how divided we appear to the world. How unable to take on board His message that we should ‘be one’ and that it would be through our mutual love that we would show the world who our Lord was. We say much, but too often what we say to each other sounds to the listening world negative and limiting. Pope Francis was not saying we should not talk about sexual sins and abortion, indeed he has rightly said abortion is a dreadful crime against humanity, but he was reminding us that there is a media out there which will always take the chance to make us sound as though we are obsessed with negative – ‘do not do this’. Yet we are reminded, on this greatest of days, that Jesus’ formulation of the Law was a positive one:

 “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

If we think of ‘being good’ merely doing no harm, we miss the positive message of the Resurrection. Our love for each other is communicated in action, and if our actions to each other as Christians contradict the message of universal love He brought, then our witness is not only impaired; it is fruitless.

We love Him because He first loved us, though we are sinners. If He can love us, we can try, in His name, to love each other. As dear Dolly Parton sings, “He’s alive, and I’m forgiven, Heaven’s Gates are opened wide.”

A happy Easter to all our readers.

He is Risen

That’s the importance of the day. Jesus the Christ is risen from the dead.

Let’s speak a bit about the history. You may know that Easter is an Anglophone term for what nearly everybody else calls some form of Pasch. There’s a myth about that, which The Clerk of Oxford does a fine job of debunking.

How was Easter celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England? There’s a popular answer to that question, which goes like this: ‘the Anglo-Saxons worshipped a goddess called Eostre, who was associated with spring and fertility, and whose symbols were eggs and hares. Around this time of year they had a festival in her honour, which the Christians came over and stole to use for their own feast, and that’s why we now have Easter’.

Yeah, not so much, Eostre was mentioned in two sentences by St Bede, the rest is mostly 19th-century fabrication.

The women and the angel at the tomb, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
(BL Additional 49598, f. 51v)

The reenactment of this scene – the women and the angel at the empty tomb – forms one of the best-known elements of the early medieval Easter liturgy, famous because it is often said to be one of the oldest examples of liturgical drama. To quote from Regularis Concordia, as translated in this excellent blogpost at For the Wynn:

When the third reading [of Nocturns] is being read, let four brothers clothe themselves, one of whom, clothed in white and as if about to do something else, should go in and secretly be at the burial place, with his hand holding a palm, and let him sit quietly.  And while the third responsory is being sung, let the remaining three follow: all clothed with cloaks, carrying censers with incense in their hands, and with footsteps in the likeness of someone seeking something, let them come before the burial place. And let these things be done in imitation of the angel sitting on the tomb and of the women coming with spices, so that they might anoint the body of Jesus.

And when the one remaining has seen the three, wandering and seeking something, approach him, let him begin, with a moderate voice, to sing sweetly: ‘Whom are you seeking?’ When this has been sung to the end, let the three respond with one voice: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. To whom he should say: ‘He is not here.  He has risen, as he said before.  Go, announce it, because he has risen from the dead.’ With this command, let those three turn around to the choir, saying, “Alleluia, the Lord has risen.’ When this has been said, let the one sitting turned back, as if calling them back, say this antiphon: ‘Come and see the place’.

Saying these things, let him rise and lift up the veil and show them the place devoid of the cross, but with the linens placed there which with the cross had been wrapped. When they have seen this, let them set down the censers which they were carrying in the same tomb, and let them take the linen and spread it out in front of the clergy, and, as if showing that the Lord has risen and is not wrapped in it, let them sing this antiphon, ‘The Lord has risen from the tomb’, and let them lay the linen upon the altar.

This is a dramatic replaying of the crucial moment in the Easter story, bringing it to life through the voices and bodies of the monks. Although presumably the primary audience for this liturgical play was the monastic community itself, it may also have been witnessed by lay people. That appears to be the implication of a miracle-story told by Eadmer, describing something which he saw take place as the ritual was being performed in Canterbury Cathedral in c.1066:

There is quite a lot more at her post which is linked above and recommended highly.

We have often spoken about Jesus the leader, and his unflinching dedication to the death to his mission. On Easter, this mission is revealed. It finally becomes obvious that His mission (at this time, anyway) is not of the Earth and its princelings. It is instead a Kingdom of souls.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,

that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

And so we come to the crux of the matter. The triumph over original sin and death itself. For if you believe in the Christ and his message you will have eternal life. This is what sets Christianity apart, the doctrine of grace. For if you truly repent of your sins, and attempt to live properly, you will be saved. Not by your works, especially not by your wars and killing on behalf of your faith, valid and just though they may be,  but by your faith and your faith alone. For you serve the King of Kings.

And as we know, the Christ is still leading the mission to save the souls of all God‘s children. It is up to us to follow the greatest leader in history or not as we choose. We would do well to remember that our God is a fearsome God but, he is also a just God. We shall be judged entirely on our merits as earthly things fall away from us. But our God is also a merciful God. So be of good cheer for the Father never burdens his people with burdens they cannot, with his help, bear.

As we celebrate the first sunrise after the defeat of darkness, Hail the King Triumphant for this is the day of His victory.

 

He is Risen indeed!

And hath appeared unto Simon!

Even Simon, the coward disciple who denied him thrice

“Christ is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon!”

to Simon Peter the favored Apostle, on whom the Church is built

Jess’ companion article will be along at Noon for your enjoyment.

What If The Crucifixion Never Happened?

English: A 14th-century of Jesus Christ bearin...

English: A 14th-century of Jesus Christ bearing the cross, from the monastery in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I saw this article this morning and it moved me in several ways. First, it is a very good commentary on the whole “For God so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son” theme. He did, and not only did He give us his wisdom and goodness, and gentleness, He allowed the world to torture Him and inflict a barbaric death upon Him. But what really struck me is a comparison. First read what Brother Burrito has to say and then we’ll talk a bit

 

Just suppose that God became incarnate and grew up to become the greatest teacher of Divine wisdom the world has ever seen, as would be appropriate for the Son of God. Just suppose that his every word was recorded for all time in incorruptible form, without error, and was passed down through the ages without misinterpretations to enlighten all the generations of men born thereafter.

Just suppose that after a long lifetime of teaching and good works and countless miracles to prove his provenance, Jesus just died of old age and was buried in the most magnificent tomb which became the supreme place of pilgrimage for all human beings until the end of time.

Wouldn’t that have been a much neater solution  to the problem of fallen mankind needing salvation from his sins, and hope of eternal life? Much less of a bloody mess. Less disturbing to keep in mind. Feel-good warm glow all round.

Well, I hope that anyone reading this can see that the correct answer to this question is:

NO!

The reason for Christ’s bloody torture and mutilation unto death is because sin and its cost is real, terrible and infinite.  That cost must be met or the Book of Life will not balance. Sinful creatures cannot enter Heaven as anti-matter cannot exist amongst matter.

Who can settle an infinite debt other than infinite God Himself. We all know the pain of indebtedness, and the hungry gnawing feeling it gives us. Imagine that feeling lasting for eternity. That is what Hell feels like.

So why should God repay our debts? Surely it would be less trouble for Him to write off the debt and dispose of us, His wayward creatures, as broken playthings. That is what we would do.

Now this is the clincher: God values us too highly to write us off. He makes us in His own image and loves us as His children!

 

 

Continue reading What If The Crucifixion Never Happened?.

 

We will talk more about this tomorrow but for now, let us think a bit about Christianity itself. Of all the world’s religions only Christianity is based on the actual begotten Son of God, not a prophet, not revealed wisdom, but the actual begotten Son of the one God. And what happened to him? He was arrested, convicted (of nothing much) and executed. Not the way religions are normally founded, is it?

 

In the early days, our religion was known as “The Way” and it spread like a prairie fire in Nebraska during a drought. By the time Mohammed was born it had spread from those 11 men and a few women in Jerusalem to all parts of the known world. From the British Isles to China, from Norway far into Africa, “The Way” was known. It never spread by the sword, as some others did. It never posited world conquest, and most of all it never promised a good life on earth. Instead, it has always offered (and still does) each individual life everlasting in the next. But you have to learn to trust and obey God.

And you must learn to serve men as well, pride has no place at this table as Jess has shown us this morning. The Apostles themselves had a great deal of trouble with this lesson and so do we. And we will continue to do so, it’s a very difficult thing.

The main thing Christianity teaches is that good and evil exist and we must strive to do good, they are not relative, they exist, and if we attempt to humbly do good we will be better for it and if we trust God we will be saved. This is the religion of the Christ, and him crucified, and there is nothing easy about being a Christian, never has been, never will be. It is the toughest mission on earth because we live our religion not die for it.

We honor many martyrs, and we know there will be many more. Every day we see reports of those murdered because of their faith, and we wonder how we would bear up. Hopefully, we will never know, but the answer is there, and the answer is that symbol, the cross.

 

We will bear up in direct proportion to our faith.

 

Good? Friday

Christ Before Pilate. Friedländer (1969): p. 83.

Christ Before Pilate. Friedländer (1969): p. 83. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a child, I always wondered how the day when Jesus suffered murder by the state could be called Good. As I grew up and put away childish things and thoughts, I came to understand the story. It is the ultimate story of servant leadership. It is the story of how God himself came down in the guise of a man, to show us the way. Here’s a part of the story.

And so now we come to the climax. We have seen Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we have seen the Last Supper with it’s echoing call “Do this in Remembrance of Me”, we have seen the arrest during prayers in the garden.

We have seen Peter, renamed Cephas (the Rock) deny the Christ 3 times. We have seen the trial before the Sanhedrin, and the passing of the buck to the Roman, Pontius Pilate who could find no fault in this man but allowed him to be condemned according to Roman practice.

We have even seen the treachery of Judas, who for 30 pieces of silver betrayed his Lord, soon repented, attempted to return the reward (which ended up funding the pauper’s cemetery) and his death as a suicide.

And so now we come to the fatal procession from Jerusalem to Golgotha.

In one way or another, we will all walk the Via Dolorosa. One of the mottoes I use to keep trying to do the right thing, “No one, not even Christ, ever got out of life alive”. For me, that about sums it up. You may as well do the right thing, you might not get the reward on earth that you were striving for, but at the judgment seat, you will be rewarded.

Here is the story according to St. Matthew:

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. And sitting down they watched him there. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross, and the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew.

And the chief priests said unto Pilate, It should be written and set up over his head, his accusation, This is he that said he was Jesus, the King of the Jews. But Pilate answered and said, What I have written, I have written; let it alone.

Then were there two thieves crucified with him; one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it again in three days save thyself. If thou be the Son of God come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others, himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now; if he will save him, let him save him; for he said, I am the Son of God.

One of the thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth. But the other rebuked him, saying, Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation; and this man is just, and hath not sinned; and he cried unto the Lord that he would save him. And the Lord said unto him This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli,lama sabachthani?(That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) Some of them that stood there, when they heard him, said, This man calleth for Elias. And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, Let him be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.

Jesus when he had cried again with a loud voice, saying, Father, it is finished, thy will is done, yielded up the ghost. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and the bodies of the saints which slept, arose, who were many, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, heard the earth quake, and saw those things which were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him for his burial; among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.

Now, remember this was on Friday following the triumphant entry the prior Sunday. How the mighty had fallen, from the crowd’s hero, one might say a rock star, to an executed criminal buried in a borrowed grave in a week.

This was the man many had expected to free Israel from Rome, there would be others for that mission, it would culminate at Masada and in the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora. The next ruler of the city, after Rome, would be Islam, contested by the Crusader knights. But until our own time, Jerusalem would not be ruled again by the Jews.

This has been used in the church in England since Anglo-Saxon times. I’m sure you can hear why.

[The late Archbishop Job 15th Antiphon]

And so the Messiah, the King of the Jews died. The lesson would seem to be not to upset the applecart, to go along to get along, even to sit down and shut up, wouldn’t it?

It’s a pretty sharp lesson too. One of the most cruel methods of execution ever devised by man.

And so ends the story;

or does it?

Again today there is a companion piece by Jessica that goes with this post. It will post again about noon CST. A day for contemplation.

Palm Sunday, Triumphalism, and Leadership

Yesterday, we reviewed the difference between leaders and non-leaders. Today in my traditional Palm Sunday post we will look at Jesus’s leadership in Passion week, and see what lessons we can learn from him, and like Jessica, we will look at a contemporary example.

On Palm Sunday, way back in the mid 60’s, according to the traditions of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, I became a man, with all the responsibilities to God that that carried. It was also when you traditionally got your first suit. The Sunday before was Examination Sunday, the test was verbal, in front of the congregation. This entitled me to take my First Communion on Easter Sunday, as was considered meet and right.

As always the Sanctuary was decorated in palm fronds commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Also as on all special Sundays, we processed behind the Pastor and Choir up the center aisle to this, Hymn No. 1 in the old E&R Hymnal.

And so I became responsible for my own everlasting fate, which up until this time had been my parents (and Godparents) responsibility.

Palm Sunday was, of course, the most triumphant day of Christ’s ministry. With the adoring and worshipful crowds which of course would soon demand and receive his death.

What can we learn from this? General Patton put it this way:

“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. . .

A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”


We know that earthly glory is fleeting, who can recite the exploits of Edward Longshanks or Frederick Barbarossa from memory. Sure we remember some of our founders but its only been a few generations, and we have been trained (some of us anyway) pretty well.

But what is different about the Christ, other than the Resurrection that is. Like most troublemakers through the ages, he died a common criminals death. Think about that for a moment. Within a week he went from the darling of the populace to an executed criminal, that’s quite a fall, in any time or place.

The other thing is: He never forgot the mission. What thoughts must have been in his mind on that long ago Palm Sunday, knowing, as he did, the fate that awaited him? But he never flinched, only prayed that this fate might be averted. He knew, as did his disciples and followers in coming times, that there would be many martyrs, Saints of the Faith if you will. There will be many more. Christianity, even more than the Judaism from which it sprang, is the religion of the oppressed, the underdog, the person who never got a fair shake in this world, the sovereign individual made in God’s image. All you have to do is: Remember the Mission and take care of your people. The shepherd of the flock. And that is more than most of us can do consistently, without God’s help, because it is one of the most difficult missions ever entrusted.

Do not fall into the trap of triumphalism, earthly glory leads to nothing but trouble. I think most of us know this instinctively. What is the thing we remember about George W. Bush? He had many faults, which most conservatives can recite from memory. But, and it’s a huge but, he was a humble God-fearing man. To me, that is a lot of the difference between him and Barack Obama. Obama wants lives for the acclaim of the crowd, the earthly glory, one could easily call it the cult of personality. In some ways, he reminds me of Flavius Josephus, a man who (in the 3d century, I think)  managed to turn some of Christ’s miracles into mere magic tricks, for glory and money.

And so the lesson for me from this Palm Sunday is the old one that the US Air Force taught me long ago and far away:

First the Mission

Second the People

Last Yourself.

 

 

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