I just watched Aronofsky’s Noah. It was a powerful, disturbing film. I don’t know if it was calculated to please a religious audience, but I think that Christians ought to be pleased by it. What follows is my take on the film, and there are a few spoilers – so be warned.
[For those interested in exploring these themes in greater depth, please see the resources listed at the end of this post.]
In much the same manner that the medieval fusion of Judeo-Christian theistic belief with Greco-Roman philosophical resources gave Western civilization its conscience and moral structure, its sense of duty and responsibility, its love of freedom within a respect for the rule of law, its model of self-sacrifice in response to need or in confrontation with evil, its basic principles of decency and its self-confident backbone in world affairs, so too it laid the historical foundations for Western science and technological success. The socioeconomic and political developments that were brought to life and nurtured in the cradle of the Judeo-Christian worldview that dominated medieval European society provided fertile metaphysical, epistemic, sociocultural and economic ground for scientific theorizing and experimentation. Advances in land and sea transportation, along with the diversification and specialization in the production of goods taking place at Christian monasteries across Europe, the ensuing transition to a cash economy, and the advent of laws protecting private property from monarchic usurpation, led to the rise of a commercial class and the establishment of banks and insurance companies that freed capital for investment and entrepreneurial use (Baldwin 1959; Gordon 2011b; Noonan 1957; Richards 2009; Stark 2005). This growth in political stability and economic prosperity provided an environment that nurtured scholarly activity and notable advances in scientific knowledge and technology, mostly through the efforts of scholastics in the context of the universities they had established for the advancement of learning and the dissemination of research and scholarship. The medieval invention of the printing press further galvanized literacy and the spread of knowledge, contributing another indispensable condition for the exponential expansion of the sciences and humanities in the sixteenth century. It is therefore reasonable to regard the “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment” as natural extensions of progress that had been made in the medieval period under the economic, political and creative impetus of Christianity, rather than as a sudden break with medieval modes of thought. Continue reading
The Apologetics department invited me to teach a course on Film this semester and I had fun picking out movies for us to watch and review – movies that you might not consider as very relevant to apologetics or faith. The students have to write reviews of the films, so I thought I might try my hand at one as well.
Click past the break to read a short excerpt from my review of The Notebook.
It’s that time of the semester when term papers are due and students are turning their attention to nearly everything but their writing assignments. As soon as a student sits down to write that essay, it suddenly becomes imperative to clean the dorm room, return long-overdue library items, and even finish that calculus set. Why do procrastinating students leave writing until the bitter end?
Perhaps because writing an academic essay is hard work and offers little in the way of instant gratification. I suspect that my students (much like their professors?) stare glassy-eyed at the bewildering number of secondary sources on The Odyssey, asking why the world needs yet another essay about the virtues of a long-dead Greek hero. In my honest moments, I think such students have a pretty solid prima facie case. You might argue that the academic essay has outlived its usefulness, since ninety-nine percent of students will never again in their lives write in this hallowed form. Perhaps we, the academic community, should abandon the essay in favor of a more up-to-date form like, say, a blog entry?
As persuasive as the case against the essay appears, I cannot imagine a replacement that requires as much synthesis of learning. A well-wrought essay requires a knowledge of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. To master the form, one must write one good sentence after another and organize those sentences into unified and coherent paragraphs, which in turn must be organized in support of a central claim. As if that were not hard enough, the essay also requires students to think in a dialectical pattern between their own ideas and those found in primary sources.
As long as I am a professor, I will assign essays because the essay proves the student. Just yesterday, I was speaking with students who were despairing of writing a decent essay. I turned to a sample student essay in a textbook to show them, point-by-point, the body and form of a college essay. The sample essay was about how Telemachus grows into manhood in The Odyssey. My students and I analyzed how the student author went about proving that Telemachus surprises the boorish suitors when he boldly announces that they must leave his father’s house. We talked about how the student showed how Telemachus signals his transition from childhood into manhood by suddenly speaking with authority. Then he, too, becomes a hero, like his father. And as we spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that here was an excellent metaphor for the experience of learning to write a college essay. The experience of learning to advance an argument and support that argument cogently is an exercise in learning to speak with legitimate authority. This process of learning to stand up with critics across time and space and assert one’s critical thoughts regarding the world’s greatest literature: it is a crucial step in the maturation of the student.
When my students turn in persuasive essays, written with due regard to the conventions of style and grammar, I am happy to see not that that they have proven their claims, but that they have proven themselves. I can honestly say to them that there is something a little bit heroic in doing all that it takes to write a good essay.
In the aftermath of the tragic mass murder in the Connecticut elementary school last year, Mike Huckabee made some comments in a television interview that incited considerable controversy and criticism. He was asked where God is in tragedies like this, and his response suggested that question is somewhat ironic, since “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.” Huckabee was criticized for, among other things, being insensitive to the victims of the shooting and their families by offering that sort of commentary so close on the heels of the tragedy.
Several months have now passed, and it worth asking again whether Huckabee raised important issues even if the timing of his initial comments was questionable. I believe in fact that he did, and that that controversy reflects deeper issues and a profound incoherence at the heart of our culture.
As the final days of February roll past, anyone whose life is determined by the university calendar is sure to be feeling the pressure of many tasks demanding time and careful attention. At this very moment, some of my students are probably resenting the work they are struggling to do for one of my classes. While I, of course, must continue to demand that my students do their work, I do also recognize that that work is not the greatest good. In fact, it is not good to be so “troubled by many things” that we miss the “one thing” that is “needful.”
This language contrasting the many things and the one thing comes from the gospel story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which illustrates our primary need as creatures of a loving God. Martha’s “love language” is clearly “acts of service”. All fine and good, but Jesus recognizes the one needful thing in Mary—to love her Savior as she sits at his feet. While the familiar story has theological implications, it also illustrates the philosophical truth of being before doing.
Acts of service always proceed from the heart, and so the love we have for God and one another precedes doing and right action. In the wake of modern materialism, being is often treated as an inert material state. But if God is the source of all being, i.e. Being itself, then being in creatures must be active. The perfect love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is pure act, and by analogy, the creatures of the Triune God share in the active life of the Godhead by virtue of being. In other words, being is good and desirable in itself before any other act of service.
The implications of this truth are evident in the problem of sin. When I confess my sins of commission and omission in church, I should first think of the ways in which I have failed to love God and neighbor. When I sin, I pursue ends which are opposed to the ends for which I was created. I should turn my heart to contemplating the goodness of God and creation to correct this distortion. The law of God is a schoolmaster that teaches the greatest of all commandments—to love God and neighbor.
When I teach, I always try to keep in mind that the great commandment is the proper end of all learning. If I stray from this path, then my efforts will not promote the love of goodness, truth, or beauty in my students. And when I do stray, I ask God to teach me again, for this one thing is needful.
Spending so much time with students keeps me young, and one of the evidences for this is my love of new music. If my students listen to something I want to give it a spin on the turntable and experience it for myself. Much of it engages the part of youth culture that I no longer find compelling – the endless search for the “song of the summer” or the pop music with so many contributing artists that one wonders if the broth isn’t ruined by so many ingredients. Occasionally I find a record that strikes my imagination.
Enter The 2nd Law by Muse.