A Year without Television, Part II: The Advent Sermon

This is part 2 of 5 in the series A Year Without Television

The following is the sermon I preached on the topic of Entertainment on December 7th, 2016. If you have not read Part I of this series yet, please do so.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t say this often, but I hope you know it’s true every single time I stand in this pulpit: what I say to you I first say to myself ten times. Preparation for this sermon touched something that, truth be told, I often regarded with suspicion but was content to let lie without taking action. But if I were to preach on this topic, then return to everyday life unchanged, I would be cut down like a tree by the words written in Romans 2, “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” (Rom. 2:21). If God’s Word necessitates a change, then I must change before preaching that Word to you.

The past couple of days have been interesting, and somewhat uncomfortable, but very liberating changes are happening. I mention this so that you won’t think of me as a hypocrite and lay aside the Word because of it. Not that I’m concerned about your opinion of me personally, but I am concerned about anything that would prevent you from taking God’s Word to heart. I also seek to show you by example that submitting one’s life to the scalpel of God’s Word is always the best course, and is not at all to be feared when we remember the nail-pierced hand that holds it.

But I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. Our topic tonight is happiness, specifically, what gives true and lasting happiness? The world has its answer, and that is entertainment: television, movies, sports, a particular kind of music. We as Christians seek true happiness elsewhere, but we must ask: to what extent can we indulge in the world’s entertainment? The world certainly uses it wrongly as the prime source of pleasure and joy. But is there a Christian way to make use of it?

As with any question the Church may ask, we find that she’s already asked it before. There are two very useful writings from the third century, over 1,700 years ago, both called “Concerning the Public Shows,” one by a man named Tertullian, the other attributed to a pastor named Cyprian, both from North Africa. I’ll include some quotes from them at opportune places.

Now there are many things that fall into the category of entertainment. In the interest of turning you home to your beds before the cock crows, we’ll take up the most prevalent offenders and treat them together: movies and television shows. I’ve called them offenders before proving that that cause any harm, so let’s say for the moment that they’re innocent and harmless.

Even then, you have to admit they are worthless at best. Even apart from other considerations, you’ve finished a movie, gotten up, stretched, and said, “There’s two hours I’m not getting back.” But they’re truly worthless because they neither nourish the body, nor serve the neighbor, nor help the goals of the Christian life. Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Do the comedies and dramas cause love to spring up in you? Do they purify the heart, better the conscience, or strengthen faith in Christ? No. They stupefy the mind, they manipulate the emotions, but they do not aid the Christian life, nor the body, nor the neighbor. Even if we refused to take the train of thought any further than this, we still have to say with Solomon after he had thoroughly tested pleasure, “behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:11).

But there’s more to be said, and you could probably tell me what it is if you think about the times you should have averted your eyes or stopped up your ears. Listen to these words from the writing attributed to Cyprian, “But now to pass from this to the shameless corruption of the stage. I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the foul jokes, the filthy parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases dull, in all cases immodest. And though no individual, or family, or profession, is spared by the discourse of these reprobates, yet every one flocks to the show. The general infamy is delightful to see or to recognise; it is a pleasure, nay, even to learn it. People flock there to the public disgrace of the brothel for the teaching of obscenity, that nothing less may be done in secret than what is learnt in public; and in the midst of the laws themselves is taught everything that the laws forbid. What does a faithful Christian do among these things, since he may not even think upon wickedness? Why does he find pleasure in the representations of lust, so as among them to lay aside his modesty and become more daring in crimes? He is learning to do, while he is becoming accustomed to see” (Libri de Spectaculis, §6).

Seventeen-hundred years later, and what’s different? All the pettiness and promiscuity remains, along with the coarse jokes, rude language, and irregular loves. The stupid father remains a stock character, and how could a show be interesting without throwing civil and natural laws to the wind? But I’d like to draw your attention to something the Church has known for a long time: the world’s entertainment is meant to catechize. It is a tool for making disciples, and not the sort of disciple you want to be.

Consider but one example. For a decade the world laughed at the humorous gay character: his lisp, his funny mannerisms. The devil was teaching us to enjoy him, to want him around, to sympathize with him. And homosexuality exploded as people wanted to be him, knowing they would be as readily accepted as he was. Then the gay characters began to lament that they couldn’t marry each other, the world grew sympathetic, and the Supreme Court helped them along. Now, even though the statistics paint a miserable picture of home life especially for children who were raised by homosexuals, the television cares not for the truth, and portrays them as even happier than the passé traditional family. The transgender character is the new stock, and we see the fruit that it’s bearing.

Why would we subject ourselves to this lying propaganda? But in addition to this temptation toward false belief, there’s also great temptation toward vices, such as lust, anger, covetousness, and disrespect. I continue quoting, “We quickly get accustomed to what we hear and what we see. For since man’s mind is itself drawn towards vice, what will it do if it should have enticements of a bodily nature as well as a downward tendency in its slippery will? What will it do if it should be impelled from without? Therefore the mind must be called away from such things as these” (Libri de Spectaculis, §8). Beware, lest you open the door to sin by submerging yourself in temptation.

Listen to these words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 6 and decide whether you want such things illuminating your living room, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Paul might as well have listed the characters the populate the screen. Leading these sorts of lives disqualifies people from eternal life. Now I’m not saying that simply by watching these things we automatically become them. I am asking: Why would we hold these characters before our eyes and let their words echo in our ears? Why would we become familiar with them and enjoy having them around? Why would we let the devil catechize us in the way of eternal death, and sit so comfortably as if we’re immune to temptation and suggestion? These are not neutral matters, and we’ve taken them lightly for far too long.

Well now what? Now we turn to the source of true joy and pleasure and happiness. That is, after all, why we turned to the screen in the first place: to enjoy, to relax. Instead we got lies and an uncomfortable conscience. But Jesus satisfies our desire for happiness and pleasure with truly happy and pleasing things. What gives greater joy than knowing the God who held gavel and sword set them aside and took up human flesh and a cross? Yes, the true joy is that however lax we’ve been in watchfulness and vigilance, however often we’ve delighted in watching others scorn the commandments of God and been double-minded in our faith, Jesus has swept it all away with the wave of his blood. As certainly as the bones of Pharaoh’s soldiers and horses lie defeated at the bottom of the Red Sea, so your iniquities have been drowned in the depths. Whatever foolishness you’ve committed with the screen, or because of it, rejoice, it is no more. Even for this Christ died and rose to redeem you.

And where do we go from here? The simple answer is: nowhere. Here is true and lasting joy that abides forever and survives the Last Day to continue being our joy. It is the joy of which Jesus spoke in the Gospel according to John, “no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22). We don’t move on from that. And what does that mean, practically speaking? It means everything that you’ve sought from the acting of the screen, Jesus has already given you in the reality of the Christian life and in the truth of the Scriptures. I’ll share a final quote with you, which will bring the sermon to a close.

“Let the faithful Christian, I say, devote himself to the sacred Scriptures, and there he shall find worthy exhibitions for his faith. He will see God establishing His world, and making not only the other animals, but that marvelous and better fabric of man. He will gaze upon the world in its delightfulness, righteous shipwrecks, the rewards of the good, and the punishments of the impious, seas drained dry by a people, and again from the rock seas spread out by a people. He will behold harvests descending from heaven, not pressed in by the plough; rivers with their hosts of waters bridled in, presenting dry crossings. He will behold in some cases faith struggling with the flame, wild beasts overcome by devotion and soothed into gentleness. He will look also upon souls brought back even from death… And in all these things he will see a still greater exhibition—that devil who had triumphed over the whole world lying prostrate under the feet of Christ. How honorable is this exhibition, brethren! how delightful, how needful ever to gaze upon one’s hope, and to open our eyes to one’s salvation! This is a spectacle which is beheld even when sight is lost. This is an exhibition which is given… by Him who is alone and above all things, and before all things, yea, and of whom are all things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and honor for ever and ever” (Libri de Spectaculis, §10). Amen.


A Year without Television, Part II: The Advent Sermon — 24 Comments

  1. This is a kind of sermon that I suspect many Lutherans want to hear though they don’t know they want to hear it. I never expected to see it. Thank you.

  2. There are those who consider a spectacle to be worth-while if it is high-brow enough. They don’t have time for television, but attend the opera regularly, maybe even support the opera society and such. FWIW the opera is of course a precursor to todays big screen little screen entertainment, and it’s subject matter is by and large filth.

  3. @St Stephen #2

    What you say about the opera is true. Before I went to seminary I got a Bachelor of Arts in Theater Production (which broadly includes everything but the acting), and got to see and hear first hand the intention of catechesis that lay beneath the veneer of entertainment. For some reason people tend to think of the theater as a more noble form of entertainment. I can attest that it’s as depraved as anything on television.

    I will note that Shakespeare is in a class of his own. If you like plays, read or watch Shakespeare. His themes are very distinctly Christian, and are nothing like the wannabe-Hollywood dreck that mainstream “Evangelicals” are putting out. The world tells many lies about Shakespeare, making him seem perverse and reading all kinds of awful things into his life and writings. Ignore all the SparkNotes and Cliffnotes and just let him speak for himself. A good starting point is The Tempest.

  4. “Monster, I do smell all horse piss”(?)

    Not all Shakespeare is lofty art. Much of it was written for the knaves in the “cheap seats” according to my old English teacher.
    And yet this is the one line I remember from The Tempest…which says something about me!

  5. @jwskud #4

    Shakespeare depicts scoundrels as scoundrels, and does an excellent job of showing where such a life leads. While Shakespeare certainly had to turn a profit, he didn’t prostitute himself by appealing to whatever base instincts he had to in order to make a buck. For some reason almost all modern takes on Shakespeare assume that money was driving everything he did, and thus (like modern entertainment-makers) he catered to the basest part of man. It’s these false interpretations of Shakespeare that lead us to remember lines such as the one you mentioned. I had the same instruction about Shakespeare in high school and college. Fortunately the easiest way to undo the false view is simply to pick up his plays and let them interpret themselves.

    That part of the play you mentioned is hysterical, and actually teaches something rather deep. Stephano sets out to kill Prospero so that he can take over the island and marry Miranda, or at least that’s what Caliban wants him to do. But Stephano is stone drunk, and keeps getting distracted, and is simply looking for a good time, not necessarily to commit murder and seize control of an island. Caliban, by the way, worships Stephano because of his bottle of strong drink, and we see in Caliban what life looks like when one is reigned by his passions and base instincts.

    Ariel, the spirit of the island, leads Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban with music and drums, and in their drunken revel they go dancing after him, and he leads them straight into a bog. They emerge soaking wet, and have lost their bottles to boot.

    Drunken revelry and slavery to passions leads to a sudden turn of affairs and the loss of the object of perverse love. By teaching us to laugh at men who have suffered such a thing, Shakespeare teaches us to find that kind of life ridiculous, and thereby turns our affections away from it. He catechizes our emotions, so that we scoff at things we should scoff at.

    “Monster (referring to Caliban), I do smell all horse-pisse, at which My nose is in great indignation,” Trinculo says. And we laugh, and are less likely to become Trinculo.

    I could go on, but I’ll simply say, Shakespeare was a devout Roman Catholic, and has a surprisingly sound theology in his plays. How many of them end with confession, Absolution, and a wedding? Who has done a better job of conveying how the devil operates than Shakespeare did in Macbeth? Or who has shown the consequences of failing in the duties of our vocations so well as Shakespeare did in King Lear? Christian filmmakers would do well to set aside their fluff and devote their full attention to putting on good productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Then they would actually be doing the Church a favor.

  6. Whether Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic or an Anglican is debatable. He was baptized and buried from Holy Trinity Church (Church of England), Stratford-upon-Avon, etc. But this is a quibble. The main point is that Shakespeare writes as a Christian. Interpretive mischief has been done when characters whom Shakespeare rendered in three dimensions, such as Macbeth, are taken as mouthpieces for his own spiritual persuasions. When Macbeth speaks his “tale told by an idiot,” Shakespeare is giving us how the world looks to someone in that state of spiritual corruption.

    A fascinating play for Shakespeare’s outlook is King Lear — sometimes seen as an expressing of the author’s despair. I think that misses the point. The play seems to be set in pagan times, before the Gospel light came to Britain. (The actor playing the Fool says that his character lives before the time of Merlin and Arthur, etc.) At the end of the play, there’s a tremendous moment which, I would suggest, both stays within the dark time of the play, and hints of the Christian day to come. Lear enters carrying his dead Cordelia. Now visualize how this would look on the stage. Has he got her slung over his shoulder, holding knees against his chest? In this case, when he walks onto the stage, the audience will be presented with Cordelia’s bottom. All right, so that’s not good stagecraft, and would be avoided. Does Lear walk onto the stage holding her wrists or upper arms, with her body lying against his back? This too would be awkward. Does he not, rather, enter the stage, with his daughter cradled in his arms? Then he sinks to his knees. He says she will never, never, never, never, never live again. His posture is the same as, or very close to that of, representations of the Virgin holding the lifeless Savior after He has been taken down from the cross: an image, I suppose that would be familiar to the audience. Lear then “fancies” that Cordelia lives, after all. Now we in the audience see that, no, the poor girl is dead. But, at the same time, we are “cued” by what our eyes see, to think of the One who died, but rose again. Thus Shakespeare maintains the integrity of the play as a glimpse of the time when (as Milton put it in his stirring sonnet about the late Massacre in Piedmont) “all our ancestors worshiped stocks and stones” — but also reminds us of the light that would come to that dark British island.

    Of course, the Christian elements in Shakespeare are usually more overt than this. Failure to appreciate them has led modern critics to interpretive difficulties or wayward readings, e.g. of Measure for Measure.

    Shakespeare isn’t writing things, typically, as overtly Christian as, say, Giertz’s wonderful Hammer of God. But I agree about him writing plays that embody Christian truth.

  7. Brilliant, and, according to my Old Man, unfortunately spot-on truth. I have taken a half-measure already by filtering-up all our screens. May God help me repent of the rest…i

    Cheers, Pastor!

  8. @Dale Nelson #6


    I hadn’t heard that particular interpretation before concerning the ending of King Lear, but I think there’s something to it. That image of the Pietà seems fairly inescapable. There’s a sense, then, I suppose in which King Lear is a bit like Beowulf, which looks back to pagan times and points out the inherent problem: death. As great as Beowulf was as a man and hero, the poem ends with his funeral, everyone weeping for him and what will become of them now that he’s gone. I haven’t been through King Lear for a couple of years. Now I want to go back and have another read. Thanks!

    Where did you come by your learning of Shakespeare? I’m always looking for good interpretations, but there are so many awful ones that it’s hard even to begin finding something good.

    -Pastor Richard

  9. @Pastor Andrew Richard #8

    Pastor Richard, I’ve been reading Shakespeare since the 1970s, and have taught a college course in Shakespeare a few times. (I’m retiring in a few months.) As far as I know, the “Pietà interpretation” is my own. The book that helped me the most was S. L. Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. If everyone who teaches Shakespeare had to read and digest this book first, many misinterpretations could have been avoided…that is, assuming those misinterpretations were made in good faith. In this time of the Roland Barthes-death of the author stuff, that should not be assumed.

  10. @Dale Nelson #9

    Thanks! I just ordered a used copy of the book.

    “Assuming those misinterpretations were made in good faith” – ha! It’s a shame we even have to say that, but you’re so right: people twist things knowingly just to suit their agendas.

    If you think of any other good Shakespeare resources, feel free to leave them here in the comments.

  11. @Pastor Andrew Richard #10

    I’ll start with some specifically Shakespearean resources & then mention some other things that seem somehow relevant.

    Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet and The Fortunes of Falstaff were stimulating. I liked the essay on Shylock in E. E. Stoll’s Shakespeare Studies. The first two essays on Tom McAlindon’s Shakespeare Minus “Theory” were interesting criticisms of modern Shakespeare critics, notably the celebrated S. Greenblatt. R. W. Chapman’s essay on Measure for Measure in man’s Unconquerable Mind is worth looking up, as is C. S. Lewis’s “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” in his Selected Literary Essays.

    When I taught Julius Caesar, I liked giving the students the passage from Joseph about the portents prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. They need to take the portent stuff in Julius Caesar seriously and not just see it as incidental stuff in a play that supposedly in mostly about politics (in a modern sense).

    Students need to be forestalled from reflexively assuming that the play Romeo and Juliet is a lot of flowery language imposed on two kids who have the hots for each other. I tried to head off students’ unearned knowingness by having them read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s letter to his wife, Sophia, about how loving her brought him to life; after reading that, the students can suppose they know better than the man himself what really happened if they insist. I also combated the likelihood that the students would see Romeo and Juliet through eyes far too accustomed to the cinematic celebration of illicit sexual activity by having them read Dante’s account of seeing Beatrice (in La Vita Nuova) and being overwhelmed by the “god Eros.”

    Students have been programmed to be reductionists all their lives: love is just sex, sex is just biology, biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, basically: materialist reductionism.

    They have to be made, if possible, to start thinking in the opposite way, whereby things are to be understood not in terms of what is less than them, but in terms of greater things, i.e. teleologically (according to the purposes of things) and in terms of their “essences.” They may have been taught that “essentialism” is one of the big crimes (and for an age in love with “transgenderism,” etc., it is). But the traditional understanding of things is that they have their essences (related to their intrinsic purposes).

    I would, then, start a Shakespeare course by trying to get them to imagine (not just think) in terms of the traditional hierarchical universe. Here I was much influenced by C. S. Lewis’s excellent The Discarded Image. The passages in that book about looking up at the night sky are really good.

    Much of the technique of thinking that they need to learn when they read traditional literature can be suggested by an interpretation of the old prayer that goes thus:

    O God, the protector of all that trust in Thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, Thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O Heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

    This prayer lends itself to two complementary and necessary ways of the soul. (1) We need to pass through, that is, not be detained by, temporal things, because we are pilgrims, this world is not our home, here we have no abiding city, but we look for the City whose builder and maker is God, etc. (2) But also we need to -pass through- the things temporal, in the sense that they are “images” perceptible to our eyes, ears, etc., that have both their own integrity but also participate in, and point to, eternal realities. Traditional Christian thought is -typological-. The earlier Christians might experience, as a reality, what to us may seem like flowery language. For them, the setting sun really -is- an image, perceptible to the senses, that bespeaks our mortality and the mortality of the earth, and its rising again bespeaks the hope of resurrection and the renewal of the whole creation (Romans 8). And so on. St. Ephrem of Syria is the go-to author, from the Church Fathers, for this. See Sebastian Brock’s very good The Luminous Eye.

    Owen Barfield can be helpful on the characteristics of consciousness today — as of lots of little, isolated brains electrically churning out “thoughts,” etc. — vs. earlier awarenesses. There’s good stuff in his Saving the Appearances, though one will not sign on to it all.

    By the way, a book lots of Lutherans should read is Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. That will help to prepare us for something like Zeeden’s Faith and Act: The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation.

    Tom McAlindon argues something like this, that in Shakespeare there’s not only the beautiful hierarchical cosmos* one reads about in Lewis’s book, but a model “showing nature as a tense system of interacting opposites, liable to sudden collapse and transformation.” I haven’t yet read his Shakespeare’s Tragic Cosmos. This probably has some affinities with Gregory Boyd’s provocative book God at War: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theology.

    *I liked to point out to students that the traditional view sees the creation as orderly, harmonious, and beautiful, and to impress this upon them by relating “cosmos” to “cosmetic,” meaning not that which gives a false appearance of beauty so much as that which brings out the existing beauty of a woman’s eyes, lips, etc. I contrast the traditional “cosmos” with the comparatively “value-free” “universe” that scientism gives us.

  12. @Dale Nelson #11

    Having said all that, I fear I will seem to say that I don’t intend, that is, that anyone who wants to read Shakespeare had better acquire a stack of critical books before DARING to open the Bard’s own works.

    No, no, no.

    By far the main thing is just reading the works. Get a decent edition with footnotes for tricky words. I recommend getting a second-hand copy of G. B. Harrison’s Shakespeare: The Complete Works (if you don’t already have a Shakespeare), from 1948, reprinted 1968. The type size is easier on the eye than some editions, and the editorial notes are sensible. Harrison was writing before the disaster of Theory overtook the English departments. There -is- some of that in the book I used to assign to students, The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Orgel and Braunmuller), but I gather it’s even worse in the corresponding Longman edition — the usual efforts to make students see Shakespeare through the protocols of Gayworld.

    I did, though, really get a lot of help from the Bethell book already mentioned (Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition), in terms of helping me to avoid misreadings. We are all accustomed to the cinema (with close-ups, location scenery, soundtracks, etc.). But Shakespeare wrote for the Globe Theatre. It’s helpful to students to really think about what it was like to write for a stage like that. The bottom line is that the -poetry- has to do most of the work; audience members cannot see actors’ faces, and the plays were performed in the open air. The poetry, then, has to convey emotion, meaning, the conditions of earth and sky, and so much more. Thus there’s a real clash between the words and the medium in Shakespeare movies, in many cases; the movies subtly promote the idea that Shakespeare is “flowery,” because the audience’s eye has already feasted on the facial expressions, the scenery, etc., while hearing the actors go on and on about the way things look and how people feel. The only really good Shakespearean play that occurs to me offhand is Akira Kurosawa’s very free adaptation — to Samurai Japan — of Macbeth, called Throne of Blood!

  13. @Dale Nelson #12

    Thank you for the list of good resources, and for the clarification. My personal revelation concerning Shakespeare came simply by sitting down and reading his plays, and I would likewise recommend doing that as a starting point for anyone interested. He really can speak for himself. Starting with secondary works instead of the plays themselves is, I daresay, largely the cause of such widespread misinterpretation of Shakespeare.

    I have an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works that’s just the text (published by someplace in England), which I picked up for $1 at a book sale. I purchased a handy book called “Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion,” which has proved invaluable, not only as a dictionary but also for getting a feel for idioms and classical and cultural references, and the diagrams in the back for each play are helpful as well.

    You mentioned the etymology of cosmos, and the English cognate “cosmetics.” I actually spend some time talking about the etymology of “cosmos” in the fifth part of this series.

    Thank you again. This is not what I was expecting to happen in the comments, but I’m very glad it has. I need to copy these comments into a document so that I remember where to find them.

  14. @Pastor Andrew Richard #13

    Shakespeare is a great author to start with when one thinks of providing an richer, deeper, more sound alternative to the pop culture that surrounds us and has colonized our imaginations.

    The imagination, in fact, is a matter of great pastoral importance. Members of the congregation will think they assent to, even embrace, the truths and the stories of the Church, but that tends to be something in a compartment of our lives. The pop cultural narrative, which is also the narrative of the schools, is of Progress, of humanity’s ongoing redemption of itself from the crimes of the past that are still embedded in marriage and the family, school and society, etc. The popular culture celebrates “dynamic leaders” and the notion that anything (good) is possible when people are “united” in the cause of equality. On a conscious level we may question this, but it’s pretty deeply “catechized,” as you put it, into us.

    Happily for us, a great deal of what’s still, in spite of the universities, commonly recognized as great literature and art is better for our imaginations. To help one become more conscious of the difference, C. S. Lewis’s piece “De Descriptione Temporum” and his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” are encouraging resources. The former (don’t be put off by the Latin title, anyone) is his inaugural address upon the taking of a chair in medieval and Renaissance literature that was created for him at Cambridge University. It concerns the question of where the “great divide” in Western civilization should be located, entertainingly and instructively showing that it is -not- between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The latter was Lewis’s introduction to a popular translation of St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word. Lewis makes the case — in a way that’s been unforgettable for some readers — for reading older books as well as recent ones. It is just about impossible to finish this essay without wanting to follow his advice. He is dealing with specifically religious or theological books, but the argument applies to literature too.

    By now some readers of these comments will have become exasperated: aren’t we ignoring the youngsters? You can’t ask them to read Shakespeare (and lots of other classic literary authors).

    To them, I would say two things: (1) Yes, but don’t turn their young imaginations over to the TV, the computer, etc. for stories, or at least do so only with discernment; (2) tell the young children stories about your own life, about their family, about the place where they live, read or (better) retell them folk tales, etc. Accustom them to take pleasure from the spoken and written word. A young child has, I believe, a natural receptivity to the voices of Father and Mother, particularly when distractions are minimal. I remember that I used to retell Norwegian folktales and such to my young kids after they’d gone to bed, either in the dark or by the light of a candle. My wife, their mom, read to them a great deal. We noticed, by the way, that as they got older, they would tell each other stories after lights out. As kids used to do, they devised words of a private language — mostly proper names they bestowed on real people, who might become “characters” in little sagas they told.

    This kind of thing helps to prepare children to read for enjoyment as they get older. One child might develop an interest in reading “books about Indians” from the library — happily, our university library was open to the public and contained a lot of older children’s books, such as the Landmark series, that hadn’t (yet, anyway) been purged. They all seemed to like the Narnian books, The Hobbit, etc., and all had read The Lord of the Rings by the time they were 12 or so. One great thing about that is that, when a boy or girl has once read The Lord of the Rings, he or she is less likely to be scared away from a book simply because it is “long.” (I have to mention that, as I recall, one of my daughters read War and Peace before her 13th birthday.)

    I think that having many, many hours of good experiences of imaginative literature and art is important, not only for its own sake, but so that, as they, inevitably and necessarily, encounter popular culture, they can perceive for themselves its meretriciousness. Conversely, if we censure or forbid popular entertainment, but the kids have little experience of anything better, they are sort of put in the position of having to believe the things their peers relish are bad, simply on faith from what their parents say. Inevitably they will question that, sooner or later.

    It’s a pastoral issue for moms and dads (and teachers), and, thus, a fitting subject for pastors.

  15. @Dale Nelson #14


    You offer some sage advice. Much of what you’ve said reminds me of Anthony Esolen’s books “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child,” “Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child,” and “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture,” which are all excellent.

    The third part of this series will publish next week, in which I take up the matter of The Benefits of getting rid of television. My family now does a great amount of reading together instead, and I’ll plan to post what sorts of things we’re reading. It would be good for parents to have some concrete recommendations. Please chime in next week as well with children’s literature recommendations.

  16. @Pastor Andrew Richard #15

    It can be good for parents to read old books about how children grew up, such as Sergei Aksakov’s Years of Childhood, or the opening pages of David Copperfield, etc.

    I would think that we can say that the natural world is designed by God to be good for the inner development of young human beings — and “natural world” is pretty expansive, from the Holy Land to North Dakota to the rain forest. Children benefit by interacting with the natural world.

    Our popular culture is all about “interacting” with extremely highly processed images designed by people. I shudder at the thought of those who want to put iPads into infants’ hands, etc. They need to remember that, however “innocent,” these devices are as if designed to -distance the user from the natural world-, and to supplant it.

    It isn’t necessary to take children to famous national parks, etc. A kid may get a lot more benefit from a vacant lot, if there’s such a thing as a reasonably safe one any more.

    They should become acquainted with the night sky. I noticed something after I moved to North Dakota and lived in a small town with relatively less light pollution. That was that, when I learned some of the constellations, the night sky looked different to me. It wasn’t a place of random spots of light (plus the moon). I noticed that the stars are not all the same color. I learned that the night sky changes through the seasons — thus, for example, the constellation Bootes, with the bright star Arcturus (which is mentioned in Holy Scripture), will be appearing “lying on its side” in the east after dark in weeks ahead. I am not an amateur astronomer, or not much of one — I did get a low-end telescope, an Orion StarBlast, a few years ago; but I became accustomed enough to what the sky looks like that, years ago, when a comet appeared, I noticed a “new star.” It was neat to check on this “new star” and see that it was a comet that had recently become visible to the unaided eye.

    Remember that the Psalmists and the author of Job, etc., were acquainted with a deep, rich night sky. It’s worth making a little effort, if we can, to connect with the night sky. Things that may have seemed “flowery” in poetry become evident as expressing something real. There is a little good material on this sort of thing in Dale Allison’s The Silence of Angels.

  17. @Dale Nelson #16


    Here are a couple of articles I had written elsewhere that touch on many of the things which you brought up in your last comment:

    The Quadrivium: Harmonies of the World

    Natural Science: God’s Second Book

    You may or may not learn anything new from them, but if nothing else you’ll find someone like minded.

    You’ve also inspired me to add a sixth part to this series, which will include recommended reading for those who are looking for a good alternative to television. I’ll take into account your comments.

  18. I recommend the turning off of the radio as well. This includes conservative talk radio as well as what passes for “Christian radio”. While I agree with Rush and Mark Levin politically, most of the time, they do not preach Christ crucified, and this has contributed to my developing a very self-righteous attitude over the past 25 years, and has been my down-fall. What was needed was confession, repentance, absolution, and a heavy, heavy dose of both Law and Gospel.

  19. Yes, Dale. It would be great if the networks could push both Daily Chapel and Issues over the air.

  20. @St Stephen #18

    Concerning music, I hold to the adage “all songs are religious songs.” There is no such thing as “secular” music, meaning non-religious music. The Top 40 is nothing more than hymns to the various gods of the Western world’s pantheon. Every now and then I’ll pay attention to the words of songs that play in stores or restaurants, just to hear what’s being worshipped now. It’s appalling! “Christian” radio is usually nothing more than heresy dressed up in the world’s predictable overproduction, both its music and its talk. We listen to Lutheran Public Radio’s sacred music station in our home quite a bit. We also enjoy making our own music and singing together.

    Concerning talk radio, I’ve never been one for tuning into political discussion, so I can’t really comment on its effects. I sense there’s a good deal of anger and one-sided “discussion” involved, but that’s more an impression than an educated opinion based on anything empirical. I do enjoy Issues Etc. We also listen to audio books at home or in the car. Lately we’ve been listening to a nice audio production of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

    Here’s a fun game: as you’re out and about, try to find a store, restaurant, cafe, etc. that isn’t playing Top 40 radio and doesn’t have a TV. Then wonder: what do these places of business have to gain by invading the eyes and ears of their patrons with things that aren’t essential to their business? Why is it the same thing everywhere, regardless of the kind of store or business? What is the unifying factor or ideal that had united them all in common practice, despite their varied products and services?

  21. I look forward to these further installments.

    Coming back to the topic of what we view (television, movies, Internet content, etc.): I have a disturbing thought. We may take in visual and aural content that we believe will not harm us. At the moment, it might not; we can choose to direct our inner attention elsewhere if certain memories arise. But many of us may live into advanced old age and experience years of dementia (sorry to have to say that, but it’s true). We may have greatly impaired capacity to control our thoughts and our impulses. I am not sure that some of us won’t be troubled by memories of things we saw or heard that weren’t unavoidable, but were freely chosen entertainments. Those memories may affect our behavior — what we do, what we say — and our state of mind. I hope we are not setting ourselves up to be dirty old men by what we choose now for amusement.

  22. From the main article above:
    “… Christ died and rose to redeem you. And where do we go from here? The simple answer is: nowhere.”

    From the Bible:
    His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness …. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. — 2 Peter 1:3-8 ESV

    Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. — Philippians 4:8 ESV (emphasis added)

  23. @Carl H #23

    True! I wish I knew the intention behind the quotations. If, perhaps, the line from the sermon seems at odds with such verses, I will explain thus: too often have I heard Christian virtue preached as the next step after redemption, as if the Gospel were a toll booth on the freeway, and now that Christ has paid the toll, that little booth is far behind in the rearview while we move on to other things. Granted I couldn’t be here at mile marker 153 without Christ, but I need not spend much time dwelling on the past. There’s much toward which to progress!

    That belittles Christ. The image of a spring may be more fitting. There’s the fount, the source of the spring. Then there’s the water that flows forth from the fount. That water never really moves on from the fount, in the sense of being disconnected from it. Without the fount that water wouldn’t exist. So also Christian virtue had its source in Christ, not beyond him. We never move on from the Gospel to works. There are no good works “beyond” the Gospel, as in “apart from” it. The verses you mention fit well with the spring imagery, not the toll booth.

    Thus when I say that we don’t go anywhere from redemption, I mean exactly that. Virtue is not some kind of next step in the Christian life. If, perchance, I have misunderstood your reason for citing those passages, please set me straight. Hopefully this little explanation has given some clarification.

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