And We Will Come Back Home; Home Again by Josh Herring

A Meditation on Home in Three Great Books and a Film

 

Josh Herring

What a fascinating year 2018 has already turned out to be. Cosby’s conviction still makes my heart simultaneously sing and cringe; North and South Korea are about to sign a peace treaty? Have we slipped into an alternate reality? If I were writing the screenplay of the 21st century, perhaps this first quarter of 2018 would serve as a balancing act to the rough scene that would have been 2017. Contemporary moments and the current news cycle are, at their best, fleeting. Perhaps tomorrow we will awaken to more news about why the world is terrible. In terms of literature, reading contemporary authors rather resembles the roller coaster that is the the news cycle: authors come and go, and their momentary fame may or may not indicate a significant author who is worth the time investment to study his work.

The books John Mark Reynolds names as “Great Books,” however, are something different. They stand above the faddishness of what publishers think will sell today, and they speak to each generation with a fresh voice. The messages and themes of the Great Books function as a sort of eternal conversation between the living and dead; such themes appear in contemporary works as well, and when we are aware of the previous conversation, their reappearance hits us with greater power. To illustrate this claim, I want to briefly survey the longing for home in three Great Books (The Odyssey, The Bible, and The Aeneid) and then examine the same theme in the recent film The Greatest Showman. By immersing ourselves in the conversation which connects the living and dead, we are able to contribute to this conversation in our contemporary moment.

Homer’s greatest poem tells the tale of that “man of winding ways” and his journey home. Above all else, Odysseus longs to return home. After ten years fighting Troy, he turns towards his beloved Ithaca. Along the way, he tells us, he met with continual misfortune. A gift from Aeolus, god of winds, blew him and his men to the shore of Ithaca; his men then opened the bag and released the winds which drove them across the sea. Odysseus escaped the cyclop’s lair, only to brag to blind Polyphemus that “It was Oddysseus” who speared his single eye; Polyphemus’ rage resulted in sea-god Poseidon’s active work against Odysseus’ return. Alone, shipwrecked, and naked, the king of Ithaca begged for help from the king and queen of Phaeacia. At long last, twenty years after leaving home, the king returned. Home, however, is not just a physical location for Odysseus. It is also a person: his queen, Penelope. Reunited with his queen and his son in his land, Odysseus has finally reached his destination. The Odyssey is a great adventure tale, and it depicts us, the hearers and the readers, as humanity searching for our home. Home is not reached quickly or easily; many dangers, distractions, and distances must be overcome to achieve the goal. But home is where happiness and flourishing reside, Homer shows us, and as such is a worthwhile goal for human beings.

Half the fun of reading through a list of Great Books lies in the internal contradictions such books contain. Homer fits squarely within the enchanted, mythological reality of the Greek imagination. The Bible does not; it claims to describe the real world, and occasionally pulls back the theological curtain to show us God’s purposes behind the mundane world. Home is an active question considered in Scripture. We first meet humanity in paradise, where home is a sinless physical existence with Man and Woman dwelling in the presence of God as fully alive human beings. After sin, however, Genesis depicts human life as being in “the wilderness.” The life of humanity involves seeking to recreate home in the wilderness; cities, nations, kings, peasants, men, women, and children all long for that first home, but cannot return. Jesus speaks to this desire when he told his disciples, “I come to bring life, and that more abundantly.” Jesus came not to establish an earthly kingdom, but to restore the life which had been yielded to the domain of sin. The biblical canon concludes with a picture of restored human living. John’s Revelation does not show disembodied souls floating on Hallmark clouds, but rather humans living on a “new earth” which has been joined with the “new heavens” through the descent of the “new Jerusalem.” Under the benevolent rule of Jesus, humanity finds their true home. The Bible shows us a current picture of home, where the Church becomes the foreshadow of our future reality. One day, we will live together in harmony without sin; in this world, while we “have troubles,” we also have a foretaste of the peace which is coming.

Writing just before the birth of Christ, Virgil took the question of home and extended it into the narrative of the exile. Aeneas and his Trojans have suffered the worst fate: they witnessed the utter destruction of their city by their dishonourable foes. The gods have promised a future home, but Aeneas and his men must find and build it. The Aeneid is less a tale of tricks and cleverness and more a story of hope denied. Three times Aeneas tried to build his city, and three times the gods rejected his efforts. He seemed to find everything he and his men could need with Dido in Carthage, but the gods called him onwards (to Dido’s dismay). By the conclusion, Aeneas and his men had built Alba Longa and received the prophecy that one day Romulus and Remus would build the greatest city, for which “no limits” would be set. Virgil died with The Aeneid incomplete, but his narrative contains the beginnings of a new home for the exiled Trojans. Virgil displays the world as having all the necessary components for home, but home depends on humanity’s ingenuity. Home is what we make in the world.

In these three Great Books, home is a substantial theme. Contemplating them calls us to consider the question of home in our own day. The study of Great Books is not content to remain in ancient days, but equips us to better examine the contemporary moment in which God has placed us. The Greatest Showman contains a beautiful exploration of home which resonates with humanity of the 21st century. P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) creates his circus by recruiting unusual humans for his acts: the strong man, the bearded woman, the midget, the tightrope walker, and so on. Over the course of the film, Barnum is sucked into the politically advantageous world of the cultural elite; the climax of the film occurs in the song “From Now On” where Barnum repents of his pride. For these unusual human beings, the circus had become their home. For them, this was the place where they were celebrated for who they are; the mockery and fear of the crowds transformed into admiration and amazement under the circus lights. By the conclusion of the film, The Greatest Showman turned from a (possibly fictional) biopic into a meditation on home for those previously shunned by humanity. As the viewers, our hearts sing with theirs in the lyrics: “And we will come back home! Home again! And we will come back home! Home again!” The reopening of the circus is the return to their home. The emotional depths of The Greatest Showman are best expressed in this song, and reveals that the circus became something more; far from a crass exploitation of the strange, Barnum created a way for those who had never experienced it to discover the home they lacked.

It is easy to focus on the present needs, events, and ideas. Reading a list of “great books” expands out perspective; such a project draws us out of ourselves and reminds us that we are the latest in many generations to ponder and answer significant questions. Suddenly, the new book, film, or song grows in importance because it is contributing to an intergenerational conversation about an idea which unifies mankind. Such a project helps to connect the living with dead, and better equip us with their wisdom; along the way, we become more human.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

Literature: Another Way Of Stewarding God’s World by Josh Herring

Josh Herring

I recently tried to rewatch Dead Poets’ Society; after five years of teaching, I couldn’t make it past John Keating’s (played by Robin Williams) terrible classroom management. Instead of enjoying the revel of the rebellious romanticism DPS celebrates, I became fascinated by a single conversation between first-year teacher Keating and a veteran teacher of 20 years. The veteran questions why Williams is trying to inspire his students to become the new Shakespeare and asks if he is setting them up for disappointment. Part of me wants to side with Keating – every student should have the ability to write a timeless classic. Instead, my reading over the last year has helped me appreciate the different purposes for which people write. None of the books below is a timeless literary classic, but each represents a way the author is taking dominion of the world and stewarding it through literary means. The study of literature is not universal because everyone needs to be Dante or Chaucer, but because becoming skilled in the craft of narrative enables a certain kind of stewardship of oneself and of God’s world.

Sometimes, people discover that society has a systemic problem, and the desire to uncover and suggest a solution to that problem becomes the motivation for their writing. In the 1940s, University of Chicago rhetorician Richard Weaver wrote his Ideas Have Consequences in this vein; he wanted to discover how the West had devolved morally to the point where dropping the atomic bomb was deemed the moral option. His work brings together logic, literary study, historical consciousness, and ethical awareness to build a diagnosis for the modern world. Contemporary feminist Wendy McElroy also followed this “identify the problem” method in her Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women. Here, McElroy brings together a survey of historical and contemporary feminist scholarship, an awareness of statistical research methods and the ability to evaluate them, and a journalistic style of writing combining exegesis, factual argumentation, and narratives to illuminate the problem she believes is causing substantial damage to the free world.

Greg Coles in his Single Gay Christian: A Personal Story of Faith and Sexual Identity takes a different path. As a lifelong student of literature and published author of fictional short stories, Coles brings his pen to the task of telling his own story. His journey involved discovering his homosexual desires, determining to discern what it means to be an obedient follower of Christ, and learning to love his calling to celibate singleness. In telling his story, Coles weaves together social commentary, biblical hermeneutics, and a passionate love for God which calls the reader to both compassion and self-evaluation. In writing this kind of spiritual autobiography, Coles locates himself within the tradition of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Rosaria Butterfield’s more recent autobiography The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Each of these works demonstrates the work of God calling the soul into faith and the difficult ways in which that call demands obedience.

In the midst of reading poetic works from millennia ago, I have also witnessed friends who have had their poetry published within the last two years. One friend from high school days initially drew on her childhood struggles and those of her family to create her poems; her pain and eventual healing could only be expressed poetically. A second friend turned to poetry to express her horror and sorrow at the rate of wives committing suicide each year in India. Poetry gave voice to pain, and allowed her to point towards the necessity for hope.

While most of the authors in this post had clear literary leanings (Coles is a PhD student in English, Butterfield was a Women’s Studies professor, both poetic friends have advanced degrees in English and Creative Writing), they illustrate the inability to predict where such interest will take the student. This year, I am teaching one section of 10th-grade literature. This class focuses on Roman, early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance literature. Perhaps one of my students will go on to join the literati; all of them, however, through the study of literature, will be equipped to tell their own stories in prose or poetry, and will be able to identify problems and propose solution clearly. Through the study of literature they rise to a particular kind of stewardship through words. I have to side with the veteran teacher in Dead Poets’ Society: not every student will become a Milton or a Shakespeare. But every student can learn to be a better steward of God’s world through the study of literature.

 


Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

Literature’s Illumination Of Theology by Josh Herring

Josh Herring

Theology offers the Christian believer not just a faith which demands belief, but one which makes sense intellectually. As such, theology is a necessarily intricate discipline; probing the revealed thoughts of God is no light, simple task. Christian theology done right, whether it is biblical, systematic, or historical, brings the minds of the current generation into conversation with those of past believers about the eternal things of God; it equips us to live lives pleasing to God in this world. And yet, it is boring to read.

Few disciplines approach theology for combining significance with wooden prose; in part because of the weightiness of the theologian’s claims, he must take care to write precisely. Eternal souls, after all, hang in the balance when one discusses topics of ultimate significance. But what if theology could do everything it must do (strengthen the believer, intellectually support the faith,draw principles and doctrines from the text of Scripture, rearticulate the faith for the living generation) and not be dry as dust? If this goal could be met, two things would happen. First, more people would read theological texts. Secondly, more people would enjoy reading theological texts.

Writing well belongs properly to literature. What the 18th century called belles lettres, the craft of beautiful writing, takes timeless ideas (from whatever source the author chooses to draw them) and crafts them together into a narrative; some of the most persuasive theologians of the Christian tradition have combined the rigor of theology with literary skill to produce timeless classics which proclaim the glory of God’s salvation through the ages; because the writing is so well done, the spiritual message is conveyed from generation to generation.

Two examples will serve to illustrate this claim, one medieval and one modern. Thomas Aquinas was an earth shatteringly important theologian; his Summa Theologica serves to this day as the high mark of medieval theology. In Aquinas’ quest to marry Aristotelian philosophy with medieval Catholicism, he produced a system of thought which continues to inspire philosophical and theological work. Reading the Summa, however, is an easy way to combat insomnia. Aquinas combines the highest intellectual capacity with logical form, producing a significant yet unbearably dull piece of theological philosophy. The form of his writing reads like the notes from a debate judge:

“There are three objections to my point (lists them). Here is a quote. Here is my point. Here are my replies to the three objections. Next.”

Aquinas is rich, yet we would deceive ourselves if we thought the masses could read him and find spiritual benefit from him. G. K. Chesterton tells this story about a parishioner who tried to read Aquinas:

“A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.”

Aquinas’ significance is difficult to overstate, but in terms of practical spiritual benefit for most people, Dante would provide more spiritual nourishment. Dante took Aquinas’ theology (a hierarchy of goods and sins, a system of punishment, a vision of divine love which moves the cosmos, and a synthesis of knowledge between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian) and turned it into the first Christian epic poem. As the reader travels with Dante and Virgil through the winding road to Dis and the Adversary frozen at the Inferno’s core, we accidentally learn an enormous amount of medieval theology. By studying the balance of sins and justice Dante used, we cannot help but begin to ask questions of practical application: if Francesca and Paolo spent eternity like that for their lust, is there any of the restless wandering of lust within me? Rather than beginning with the intellect, Dante seizes our hearts and imagination and fuses them together with his poetic vision; in so doing, he also instructs our minds. Pastorally, I would not give Aquinas to just any church member; Dante I would hand out freely. Because of his literary skill, Dante guides us into the deep waters of Thomistic theology and sustains us through it.

In the modern era, I know of no greater literary theologian than C.S. Lewis. A literature professor by inclination and training, Lewis combined all the craft of a medievalist with his deep, theological studies. Consider the theological principles Lewis brings up in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe addresses multiple understandings of substitutionary atonement (as Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund); it illustrates the curse being undone (as Aslan breathes life into stone creatures); it shows the balance of justice and mercy necessary in the divine economy (in Aslan’s explanation of the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time). Prince Caspian shows God concerned with joy and the flourishing of his creatures; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contains a profound image of redemption (Eustace Scrubb’s change from dragon to human and his inability to change himself). The Horse and His Boy waxes missional, reminding us that God loves all men (even Calormen). The Silver Chair contains a version of the Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as well as showing the human predilection for ignoring God’s commands. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle reinforce each other, framing the fictional world of Narnia as one of divine beginning and ending; both are riddled with the implications of creation and redemption, displaying the hope offered by Revelation; The Last Battle concludes with a vision of heaven where all that is good in creation is brought into Aslan’s Country and made perfect, dwelling with him forever. Children who read these books, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, are being instructed in essential theological categories preparing the ground for God’s work in the gospel.

Theology is a vital, ongoing need for the Christian church. Christians are served by men who study the deep things of God and maintain the tradition of theological engagement; theology as it currently exists, however, is oriented predominantly to the academy. As such, theology only reaches those who are intellectually inclined to it. God has not reserved theology only for the intellectually elite; when paired with the craft of literature, theology becomes both accessible and enjoyable. John Bunyan and John Milton both discovered this truth. As Puritans, both were deeply read theologically and intellectually inclined. Both used their giftings to serve the church at large. For Milton, this culminated in Paradise Lost, an epic poem through which the call of God’s grace resounds to this day. For Bunyan, his pastoral work caused him to formulate his theology in the form of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the hallmark pieces of Protestant theology; its accessibility makes it one of the beloved texts of Christians for the past four centuries.

Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Pray to the Lord of the Harvest that He might send workers.” Perhaps we might paraphrase that prayer, and ask God to continue raising up literary theologians who use their giftings to “sing the song again in our time” in a beautiful, accessible way.

 


Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

A Modern Encounter With An Enchanted World by Josh Herring

Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh

“Nor could I have spoken, for the answer to her question was still unformed, but lay in the pocket of my mind, like sea-mist in a dip of the sand dunes; the cloudy sense that the fate of more souls than one was at issue; that the snow was beginning to shift on the high slopes.”


Josh Herring

Literature accomplishes many valuable ends, and I find that it is most helpful in illustrating the attitudes of different ages. By studying the imaginative efforts of medieval poets and contrasting them with the novels of modernism, the difference becomes inescapable. The Dream of the Rood is a fabulous Anglo-Saxon poem which conveys the gospel through the warrior savagery of the 8th century; Jesus saves the world, but he does so as a mighty warrior slaying the enemy of sin while hung upon the cross (rippling muscles and all). This poem has no room for Jesus “meek and mild” holding a child; Dream of the Rood speaks to the warrior in the mead-hall and calls him to marvel at the quest which God achieved.

Brideshead Revisited highlights a different literary era, and causes us to long for the faith which satisfies.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has become justifiably famous. Adapted multiple times for film and mini-series, this novel follows the relationship which forms between Charles Ryder and the Flyte family. Set in early-to-mid 20th century Britain, it covers the same time period which gave Downton Abbey such dramatic tension. The entire novel is well worth reading, but it is the final scene which gives me chills.

At the end of the novel, Charles has become a long time lover of Julia Flyte. Both seek divorce in order to marry each other; their plans seem well laid until Lord Marchmain returns home to die. The final days of the family patriarch reveal an irreconcilable divide between Charles and Julia. As Marchmain draws nearer to his final breath, his children (and Charles) debate whether or not to invite the priest to administer final rites. While often bad Catholics, the Flyte family had maintained their Catholicism down the ages. Each child had gone through catechesis, and the formative power of early discipleship is one of the running themes of Brideshead Revisited. How much faith influenced each child into adulthood, however, becomes evident as they are faced with the patriarch’s death. Lord Marchmain had denied the Church over the previous 25 years; should he confess and receive absolution in his final days?

Here lies the final dramatic clash of this novel. Charles, a modern agnostic, cannot comprehend why any of the children would even ask such a question. Julia, the eldest daughter, discovers a faith deeper than cognitive assent which surfaces the closer her father draws to death.

“‘Julia,’ [Charles] said, ‘how can we stop this tomfoolery?’

“She did not answer for some time; then: ‘Why should we?’

“‘You know as well as I do. It’s just –just an unseemly incident.’

“‘Who am I to object to unseemly incidents?” she asked sadly” (Waugh, 325).

Hours before Marchmain’s death, he makes the sign of the cross and receives extreme unction. Watching Marchmain repent forms a desire within Charles: he wants to repent, but the best he can do is pray, “God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin” (Waugh, 338). The disagreement of faith between Julia and Charles dissolves their romance; Julia refuses to marry an unbeliever, and Charles cannot find faith within himself.

I love this ending because Charles represents modernism. Here is the worldly wisdom, the scoffing at the unseen, the easy reliance on reason. When faced with the faith of the Flyte family, he knows not what to do. Julia stands for the uneasy tension of faith in modernity; she is a bad Catholic, but the early formation and the sacramental nature of her theology gives her rich resources to draw upon when faced with death. There is more to the world than the visible, and as Julia recovers her faith she points to its enduring power.

Waugh does not dodge the difficulties of faith in a technological era. Instead, his literature points beyond the particularities of any one historical moment to the question of death and the emptiness of modernism when faced with death. Waugh does not make the predictable evangelical move for his protagonist to experience a conversion, but he leaves his readers longing for faith which sustains in life’s darkest moments.

For all our scientific mastery, Brideshead Revisited reminds us that we post-postmoderns have difficulty believing with the strength and simplicity expressed in Dream of the Rood. We no longer live in a cultural moment where Christianity may be reasonably assumed; the impetus lies on us as Christians to live lives worthy of the gospel, and therefore let our lives be a “pleasing aroma of grace” to those who are perishing.

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Logo

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 


Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.