A Few Great Families

Well, I finished Season Two of The Mandalorian last night. The show is creative, especially when it comes to random side characters. I was interested in the expanded Star Wars universe for the first time since before I watched The Phantom Menace. The practical effects of baby Yoda and other random side characters made up for the fact that the main character literally does not change expression the entire time.

Apart from overly loud action sequences and a constant barrage of “strong female characters,” I enjoyed the show. But, as usual, I can think of a couple ways it could have been improved.

Here be spoilers.

First, the series’s most powerful mystery isn’t the Child or the presence of the Empire or why Bo-Katan doesn’t have helmet hair. It’s the Mandalorian himself. His invisible identity makes the story hum even in its action-less moments. When are we going to see the vulnerable human being underneath the suit of armor? The reveal was wasted in a three-second shot in Season One that literally served no purpose. If the nurse droid must remove the Mandalorian’s helmet in order to save his life, why not show it happening from behind Mando’s head to keep his face hidden and the mystery alive? I found that moment quite bizarre, actually. After Mando says that no person has seen his face since he put on the helmet, the droid responds, “I am not a person,” and takes it off. Ok, fine. Nice loophole. But then the audience sees his face, implying that… the audience isn’t made up of persons? We’re all droids? It shows that the creators aren’t really thinking about how movies work.

The second time Mando removes his helmet turns out to be completely useless in terms of plot. The guy he’s with can’t use the facial scanner in the officer’s mess because he thinks an officer might recognize him. Mando volunteers to go instead, and has a moment of agony as he weighs the importance of getting the information against the importance of keeping his vow. In the end, he decides to go for it, but gets into trouble with the officer. The other character rescues him and – ta-dah! – the officer does not, in fact, recognize him at all. That was nice. You made the Mandalorian break his vow for nothing.

The third time he removes his helmet (to say goodbye to Baby Yoda) should have been the first time was saw his face. What a powerful moment that would have been—our two main characters face to face for the first time.

Speaking of powerful moments, the ending was extremely lame. I liked The Mandalorian because it showed that there’s room in the Star Wars universe for heroic stories that aren’t centered around the Skywalker family. Silly me. Just when I started to get excited about meeting a new, powerful Jedi (and another interesting male character, too!), he pulled back his hood and revealed his true identity: the Madame Tussaud’s version of Mark Hamill.

In W. H. Auden’s poem For the Time Being, Simeon sings about the birth of Christ, declaring that it has redeemed even the lowly because it has elevated the conflict everyone experiences in his own soul. Each humble one of us now fights the good fight.

The tragic conflict of Virtue with Necessity is no longer confined to the Exceptional Hero; for disaster is not the impact of a curse upon a few great families, but issues continually from the hubris of every tainted will. Every invalid is Roland defending the narrow pass against hopeless odds, every stenographer Brünnhilde refusing to renounce her lover’s ring which came into existence through the renunciation of love.

The Star Wars saga has tried to tell stories about characters other than the Skywalkers before (e.g., Rogue One), but the centripetal force (Force?) always proves too strong. The culmination of every story turns out to be about Luke or Leia or Emperor Palpatine or whomever. It’s getting old, frankly. Rian Johnson beautifully wrapped up Luke’s story in the Last Jedi and made many, many efforts to show that Star Wars is about more than just one bloodline, but all of his efforts were utterly quashed by the creators of the Rise of Skywalker. No every day heroes allowed in Star Wars. This is and always will be a story confined to the Exceptional Hero, the saga of a few great families.

Since I’m trying not to use Goodreads anymore, I downloaded my To-Read list as a CSV file and am going through the titles one by one, deleting anything I’ve already read (about one out of every ten). I’m amazed by how many of the books I remember putting on the list—who told me about them, in which footnote I tracked them down, where on a library shelf I stumbled across the title. It’s like a reading diary in itself.

The Lost Diary of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Balliol College, Monday.—Read aloud my Essay on Equality to the Master. It began: “Treat all men as your equals, especially the rich.” The Master commented on this sentence. He said, “Very ribald, Prince Hamlet, very ribald.”

In training for the annual fencing match between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Doing my utmost to reduce my flesh which is far too solid.

The poet Maurice Baring wrote a collection of the “lost diaries” of historical and fictional characters, which is available on Project Gutenberg.

From the diary of Emperor Titus:

Rome, Monday.—The eruption at Vesuvius does not after all appear to have been greatly exaggerated, as I at first had thought on receiving Pliny’s graphic letter. One never can quite trust literary men when facts are in question. It is clear that I missed a very fine and interesting spectacle. In fact I have lost a day. Good phrase, that. Must try and bring it in some time or other.

From the diary of Sherlock Holmes:

January 12.—Found a carbuncle of unusual size in the plum-pudding. Suspected the makings of an interesting case. But luckily, before I had stated any hypothesis to Watson—who was greatly excited—Mrs Turner came in and noticed it and said her naughty nephew Bill had been at his tricks again, and that the red stone had come from a Christmas tree. Of course, I had not examined the stone with my lens.

From the diary of Oedipus Rex:

Wednesday.—Saw the Sphinx. Guessed the riddle first shot. It asked what was that which runs on two legs, has feathers and a beak, and barks like a dog. I said “pheasant,” and I added, “You put that in about the barking to make it more difficult.” The Sphinx was very angry and went off in a huff, for good.

What I Read in 2020

Below is a list of the books I finished this year. Back in April, I posted a list of what I’d read up to that point, along with some comments. No comments today, alas.

I also keep a running list of what I’m reading, watching, and listening to in my Media Diary (which I haven’t updated in some time).

(Thanks to my wife, whose yearly run-downs inspired me to do this.)

Theology & Christianity

  • The Reason for God, Tim Keller
  • Partakers of Grace, Douglas Wilson
  • From Silence to Song, Peter J. Leithart
  • Defending Constantine, Peter J. Leithart
  • Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
  • Selections from the Table-Talk of Martin Luther, Henry Bell
  • The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer
  • Job Through New Eyes: A Son for Glory, Toby Sumpter
  • Joy at the End of the Tether, Douglas Wilson
  • A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody, Isaac Watts
  • Practical Christianity, A. W. Pink
  • Studies in Deuteronomy, Donald F. Ackland
  • The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis
  • Miracles, C. S. Lewis
  • Heretics, G. K. Chesterton
  • Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh
  • Born Again, Charles W. Colson
  • Bruchko, Bruce Olson

Parenting & Teaching

  • Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen
  • Parenting, Paul David Tripp
  • Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp
  • Something They Will Not Forget, Joshua Gibbs

Adult Fiction

  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Empire of Bones, N. D. Wilson
  • The Starbridge Series, Susan Howatch (Books 1-4)
  • Descent Into Hell, Charles Williams
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
  • Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  • Beau Geste, P. C. Wren
  • The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
  • Earthfasts, William Mayne
  • The Unique Miranda Trilogy, H. W. Taylor (Books 1-2)
  • Kill Ship, H. W. Taylor
  • Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
  • The River, Peter Heller
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Children’s Fiction

  • New Kid, Jerry Craft
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
  • Afternoon of the Elves, Janet Taylor Lisle

Creative Non-Fiction

  • Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn
  • H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
  • Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther

Poetry

  • Motherland, Sally Thomas

Plays

  • Deathtrap, Ira Levin
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Writing

  • Ploductivity, Douglas Wilson
  • The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
  • Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
  • Show Your Work, Austin Kleon
  • Keep Going, Austin Kleon

Other Non-Fiction

  • Long Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

Total: 58

Classical and Christian Education

(You can listen to the talk itself here.)

Christian Education

In his book Teacher in America, the French-American writer Jacques Barzun explains why he prefers to write about “teaching” rather than “education”:

The advantage of [the word] ‘teaching’ is that in using it you must recognize… that practical limits exist. You know by instinct that it is impossible to ‘teach’ democracy, or citizenship or a happily married life. I do not say that these virtues and benefits are not somehow connected with good teaching. They are, but they occur as by-products. They come, not from a course, but from a teacher; not from a curriculum, but from a human soul.

Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit someone who thinks that education is the solution to all the trouble in the world. This is true only if we hold to a certain definition of “education,” that is, one soul shaping another. Of course, we all need our souls to be shaped in the right way, and that would make the world a better place. The problem comes when we confuse “education” with what happens in schools between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Barzun illustrates the difference by saying,

[Education] is a lifelong discipline of the individual by himself, encouraged by a reasonable opportunity to lead a good life. Education here is synonymous with civilization… [which] is a long slow process which cannot be ‘given’ in a short course. No one in his senses would affirm that Schooling is the hope of the world.

I want to use this discrimination between education and schooling to talk about Christian education. First, I’ll give three principles for Christian education, as Barzun defines it: “the lifelong discipline of the individual by himself.” Then I’ll talk a little about Christian education in the sense we normally use the phrase, which is what Barzun calls “schooling.”

The first principle of Christian education is that the parents are responsible for the education of their children — specifically, the father is responsible (Deut. 6, Eph. 6, the whole book of Proverbs). Parents must bring up their children in such a way that “lifelong self-discipline” becomes a possibility. Of course, parents can and should ask for help doing this difficult task. It would be a mistake to think that you could shape your child’s soul all by yourself. You are one of many shapers: teachers, mentors, friends, habits, practices, liturgies, entertainment, and self-reflection. You, the parent, are not the only one educating your child, but you, the parent, are the one who will be held responsible.

The second principle of Christian education is that a student will become like his master. Because knowledge is more than just information, teachers always communicate more than mere facts. They give a part of themselves to their students. The most influential ingredient in anyone’s education is the character of the person who educated them. You become like your teachers. Your children will become like their teachers (and, for kids, that includes more than just the person standing at the front of the classroom). When choosing a church, a school, a neighborhood, a city, ask yourself whether you want your children to become like the people there.

Lastly, the Bible teaches that Christ is at the center of all things. (Col. 1, John 1) If a comprehensive education means learning about the world, no education is complete without Christ. He is the keystone that allows the whole arch to stand.

Notice that there’s nothing here about content or methods. You have a responsibility to give your child a Christian education, and you can’t do that by sending them off to a Christian school. Going to school is just one part of education. You can’t give your child a Christian education by purchasing the right online curriculum. An online curriculum doesn’t shape a person’s soul.

I hope that you find relief in what I’m saying. You don’t need a Christian school to give your child a Christian education. It may help, but it’s not required. Hopefully, at a Christian school, you’d find men and women of good character, who will teach your child to become like them. Hopefully, at a Christian school, your child would learn to know Christ and His creation. But a Christian school is not required.

Classical Schools

If I had to guess, I’d say that many, if not most, of you think of “classical education” as the gold standard. I went to a classical high school. I teach at a classical school. I’m a big fan of classical education.

As a side note, it’s probably worth asking whether or not, since education is a life-long pursuit, someone can be “classically educated.” I would say, yes, but not at school. Thirteen years of old books and Latin can have a profound effect on you, but if a recent graduate believed himself to be “educated,” I’d say he didn’t learn anything. If a student, upon graduating, said to himself, “Man, I don’t know anything. I better learn,” that would be a success. The desire to learn and the skills to do so are a good indicator that the student has indeed been classically educated.

Classical education really just means studying the “classics,” which used to mean Greek and Roman literature, and now includes old books from all kinds of subjects. There are several benefits to classical education:

  1. The ancients and medievals tended to think of knowledge as a unified whole, so, by reading their works, students will assume the same.
  2. The same thinkers loved knowledge because they believed it brought them closer to virtue. Modern-day people aren’t accustomed to pursuing virtue.
  3. Reading old books brings Western history and civilization before the eyes of students. Modern people love to pretend that they invented everything. All problems are new problems, and therefore it’s up to us to come up with a solution. A few years of reading old books should be enough to demonstrate that not only are our problems not new, many of them already have solutions. We’ve just forgotten them. (Example?)
  4. Lastly, by its nature, classical education focuses on the things that have lasted. Age doesn’t automatically make a thing good, but good things tend to last, and the longer they last, the more respect we should pay them.

I do think that these benefits fit our definition of “education.” But a classical school can only point students in the direction of these things. A school cannot “educate” because it is not a person.

The brand of classical schooling that most of us are familiar with is the Dorothy Sayers model, which applies the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric to the stages of a child’s development. Young children memorize easily, so they are given the “grammar” of different subjects. Middle-schoolers like to argue, so they are placated with “dialectic” or logic. High schoolers like to express themselves, so they are given the tools of rhetoric. From what I can tell, it seems to work.

The thing that many people miss about Sayers’ model is that, when it comes to actual content, she is mostly agnostic. She makes some suggestions, but makes it clear they are suggestions. Her main point is that we should teach students to teach themselves, a goal which by nature must be content agnostic. Given that, and given the benefits of classical education I outlined above, here are some critiques of classical schools, as well as some suggestions. How can we make our classical schools more conducive to a Christian education?

Latin

In my experience, no subject in a classical school gives students as much trouble as Latin. It’s just soul-crushing. Learning a second language may be the most mind-opening experience you can have. That’s what makes it so valuable, but also what makes it so difficult. Teaching a student another language forces them to toy with the basis of their thought, which is always uncomfortable.

I love Latin. I wrote my college thesis on Latin. I’ve taught Latin. I take great pleasure in reading Latin. But I think it’s overemphasized in classical schools. (Sayers herself doesn’t say Latin is necessary, just that she prefers it.) Learning a second language is important, if only to introduce children to the idea of other languages, but you’re not going to get very far in Latin with second graders unless you have an exceptional teacher. Students regularly tell me things like, “I’ve taken eight years of Latin and don’t know it at all.”

Here’s my advice: save Latin for high school. It’s a crucial part of a classical education, but you can learn plenty of Latin in three years. In elementary school, I would start with Hebrew. Have the kids memorize the Psalms and the opening chapters of Genesis in Hebrew. Forget about grammar and teach pure memorization (reading and writing). Add a modern language (Spanish or French) if you want. In middle-school, teach Greek.

Music

The Greeks and Romans gave us plenty of good literature, but they have given us almost no good music. Music is part of our Christian heritage that we are woefully undereducated in. At some schools, music is not even offered, let alone required. At others, it’s an elective or a once-a-week activity. The reason given for this lack of emphasis is that some children just aren’t musical. That logic will get you nowhere with a math or science teacher, and ought to make a music teacher laugh in your face. God’s people sing. Get over it.

Young children pick up music easily. Puberty makes everyone self-conscious, especially boys whose voices are changing. But even when your voice is unreliable, your fingers still work. Choose an instrument. Learn to read music and add chords to melodies. Analyze a piece of music the same way you’d analyze a math problem or a poem. And, in the rhetoric stage, write your own.

Bible

Bible is almost always the Achilles heel of a Christian school. Christian schools (at least, evangelical ones) are expected to be non-denominational in practice, if not in name. Bible class is de-emphasized on the rationale that “the students are getting Bible during Sunday school.” If there is any kind of worship service at all, it is a chapel service with happy-clappy tunes and a boring talk.

Classical schools need to make the Bible the center of their curriculum. I don’t mean sprinkling a little Bible reading on their lesson plans. I mean a rigorous Bible class that asks students to read the Bible like they would any other text: with attention to details and poetic figures, allusions and patterns. That Bible class should be required every year, along with biblical liturgy woven throughout the school day.

Obviously, much of this needs to be fleshed out. And many people are already having conversations about these issues, which is very encouraging. A truly classical Christian model would be constantly seeking improvement.

Tim Keller and Poetry

A few weeks ago, I finished Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. His practical knowledge, gained over many years of talking to atheists, really shines, especially on things philosophical and historical (and matters categorical). On the other hand, his perception of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is dim. His sympathy with evolution and old-earth creationism appears in several places throughout the book, but one argument stuck out to me, since it was purportedly based on the Bible itself.

In a nutshell, Keller argues that Genesis 1-2 follows the pattern of Exodus 14-15 and Judges 4-5. In both the latter passages, the author relates a historical event, then follows it with a song recounting the same thing in poetic form. The exodus from Egypt is followed by the Song of Miriam, while the battle with the Midianites is accompanied by the Song of Deborah.

According to Keller, this is what’s happening in the first two chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 is a poetic treatment of Creation. Genesis 2 is the real deal. The seven day thing is metaphorical. The real story begins in Chapter 2, verse 4, with what I suppose is an ancient Hebrew explanation of the Proterozoic period (a term I just learned from Wikipedia). There are several problems with this, which I’m sure many fine Christians have explained online. I’ll just point out two that occurred to me while I was reading.

  • First, if Keller is correct in thinking that Genesis 1-2 follows the same structure as Exodus 14-15 and Judges 4-5, wouldn’t Genesis 1 be the historical treatment and Genesis 2 the poetic one? History followed by poetry, right?
  • Second, the Bible does have poetic descriptions of Creation (Job 38, Psalm 33 et al., Proverbs 30), none of which resembles Genesis 1. If anything, Genesis 1 has the same spare style we see throughout most of the Old Testament books of history.

Any argument based on style supports the idea that Genesis 1 is, in fact, describing what actually happened.

Trees and Time

I encourage you to explore Alan Jacobs’s redesigned website, The Gospel of the Trees. As it says on the About page:

The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.

Start by clicking on the leaf icon in the upper right corner. From there, clicking “Explore” will take you to a random page, containing a photo, a poem, or a quote about trees, usually with some kind of spiritual dimension. The experience of going smoothly from an arresting image to an insightful thought is a little like walking through the woods with a clever, well-read friend at your side. In my few minutes clicking through, I saw photos of trees, part of Auden’s Hora Canonicae, the lyrics to “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” a passage from Deuteronomy, and an excerpt from a news article about the difficulty of arboreal classification — creating a family tree for trees, as it were.

I had something like this website in mind when I started my time Tumblr, The Escapement. Perhaps one day that, too, will be a beautiful “coffee-table website.”

Potato 5

Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.

Potato 1

Potato 2

Potato 3

Potato 4

Potato 4

A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.