Jaroslav Pelikan: “A Portrait of the Christian as A Young Intellectual” (1960)

jaroslav-pelikanJaroslav Pelikan’s (1923-2006) commencement address at the University of Wittenberg in 1960 is a gem. (He was 37-years-old at the time.) In it he argues that Christians should have (1) a passion for being, (2) a reverence for language, and (3) an enthusiasm for history — each of which is grounded on the Trinity.

To give a taste of what he says, here is Pelikan on reverence for language:

“[T]he Christian cause depends upon language, and without it the life of the church would be impossible. I do not pretend to know why Johnny can’t read; but I do know that if enough Johnnies can’t read, Christian faith and thought as we know them will end. . . .

[T]here is nothing “mere” about words, and it is the task of the Christian intellectual to insist upon this. When the God of the universe, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose to make Himself known to men, He spoke to them through the prophets; and when the early Christians sought to describe what God had done to them and for them through Jesus, they called Jesus the Logos, the Word and Mind of God. The Christian intellectual knows, therefore, that man’s capacity for speech lies somewhere near the center of his uniqueness. Both the misery and the grandeur of humanity are bound up with the gift of language. The serpent spoke to Eve in the garden; God spoke to Moses on the mountain. And ever since then the temptations and the revelations of man have come through language. They still do. Hence a reverence for what language can do if it is used properly and a horror of what language can do if it is misused belong to the equipment of the educated man. Hear one educated man, E. B. White, who also incarnates the chastity of English prose style, giving voice to this reverence and horror: “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose; it is a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded roadsign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram” — and, let the theologian add, betrayal of the faith once handed down to the saints by careless or deliberate ambiguity in the language of theology or devotion. . . .

[C]larity begins at home. I can think of no service more important for our culture than the growth of a reverence for language. Sins against syntax are often funny, but sometimes they are serious. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Charles de Gaulle all prove that language does not merely describe action; it is action, and sometimes the only action equal to the despair or the glory of the hour. In the beginning was the Word: the capacity for words is still the point at which God contacts man, still the point at which the devil finds man most vulnerable. If you carry away from your courses in literature and language no more than an awe for the fearful potentialities of human speech and a zeal to make that awe a light of your life in home, church, and community, this university has served you well. A Christian intellectual is not necessarily one who has read all the Great Books on the lists compiled at the University of Chicago, though he could do worse in his reading and probably will. But a Christian intellectual is one whose reading and writing, speaking and listening, are informed by a reverence for language as the divine gift . . .”

Man, this is a great speech! I would encourage every person to read it multiple times, print it out, save it, and dwell on his points. There’s a lot of fodder for thought. Read it here.

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J. C. Ryle — Thoughts for Young Men

Thoughts for Young Men

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J. C. Ryle

John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) was the first Bishop of Liverpool. This little book (62 pages) is chock full of seasoned wisdom and truths that are no less relevant today than when they were first written in 1886. I first read this book as a sophomore in college. In small but powerful ways the Lord used it, along with Ryle’s Holiness, to sober me up to life and renew my commitment to walk closely with the Lord.

The book is divided into four sections. In section one, Ryle begins with reasons for his exhorting young men:

“I am growing old myself, but there are few things I remember so well as the days of my youth. I have a most distinct recollection of the joys and the sorrows, the hopes and the fears, the temptations and the difficulties, the mistaken judgments and the misplaced affections, the errors and the aspirations, which surround and accompany a young man’s life. If I can only say something to keep some young man in the right way, and preserve him from faults and sins, which may mar his prospects both for time and eternity, I shall be very thankful” (p. 5).

In section two, Ryle focuses on five specific dangers which young men to be warned of (e.g., pride, the love of pleasure, the fear of man, etc.). In section three, he outlines some general suggestions and then in section four he lays down some practical “rules of conduct” for young men to follow. Ryle then concludes with the results for those who heed his exhortations.

A few notable quotes:

  • “Youth is the seedtime of full age—the mouldering season in the little space of human life—the turning point in the history of man’s life. By the shoot we judge the tree—by the blossoms we judge the fruit—by the the spring we judge the harvest—by the morning we judge the day—and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up” (p.11).
  • “A hasty glance at the Bible now and then does little good. At that rate you will never become familiar with its treasures, or feel the sword of the Spirit fitted to your hand in the hour of conflict. But get your mind stored with Scripture, by diligent reading, and you will soon discover its value and power. Texts will rise up in your hearts in the moment of temptation. Commands will suggest themselves in seasons of doubt. Promises will come across your thoughts in the time of discouragement. And thus you will experience the truth of David’s words, ‘Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee’ (Ps. 119:11) . . .” (p.42).
  • “Nothing darken the eyes of the mind so much, and deadens the conscience so surely, as an allowed sin. It may be a little one, but it is not the less dangerous for all that. A small leak will sink a great ship, and a small spark will kindle a great fire, and a little allowed sin in like manner will ruin an immortal soul. Take my advice, and never spare a little sin” (p.46).
  • “Godliness has indeed the promise of this life, as well as of that to come. There is a solid peace in feeling that God is your friend. There is a real satisfaction in knowing that however great your unworthiness, you are complete in Christ—that you have an enduring portion—that you have chosen that good part which shall not be taken from you. . . . Young men, these things are true. Suffer the word of exhortation. Be persuaded. Take up the cross. Follow Christ. Yield yourselves unto God” (p.62).

Perhaps that’s enough of a taste to whet your appetite for more. If you’re a young man, then take me at my word and pick up this little book. It wouldn’t be surprising if, after reading it, you become all Ryle-ed up and a better man for it.

C. S. Lewis, Reading, and True Individuality

I love how C. S. Lewis finishes his little but meaty book on literary theory:

“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 140-141.

Reading Fiction Helps You “Read” People

According to a new study, reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction) helps you “read” people:

“Literary fiction … focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters…. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.”

I think I agree. Read the rest here.

Pastors: Read Over Your Heads

 

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Great, great advice for pastors: read over your head. Reading scholarly “stuff” keeps you (1) fresh, (2) humble, (3) hungry, (4) balanced, and (5) edified. Seven years into theological training and I have found this to be wonderfully and refreshingly true.

I especially appreciate his practical counsel:

What does this mean for you as a pastor? I can’t say for sure. But consider subscribing to a good journal like JETS or WTJ. Don’t dismiss every book that costs more than you think it’s worth. Plow through a book on your shelf that only makes sense half of the time. Find an area or a person you are really interested in and take a few months to read as much as you can. Try to peruse at least one scholarly monograph each year. And best of all, don’t be afraid to read the old, big books that these men and women are writing about.

Read the rest here.

Lit!: A Christian Guide To Reading Books (Tony Reinke)

I came to faith in Christ while in high school, and ever since then I have been a lover of the Book, i.e., the Bible. It didn’t take me long, though, to fall in love with books in general—all kinds. I started off with Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Not Even A Hint (which since then has been retitled, Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is). I later moved on to John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to the Apostles and came to grips with what the gospel was (and was not). During my college years I came across J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, which for me opened whole new vistas on the nature of sanctification in the believer’s life.

But I didn’t simply read Christian books. I quickly began devouring stories like The Chronicles of Narnia (okay, you can quibble about that one) and Harry Potter and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For two years, almost every Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, I worked my way through David McCullough’s wonderful retelling of President John Adams. I could endlessly go on and share how different books have come into my life and have helped me think better and see the world differently.

But I will say this, in many ways we are what we read. Though not always perceived, books make certain indelible impressions upon the reader. We will not always be aware of the mark they are making, but unquestionably books are molding us and refining us, allowing us to expand our thinking, to venture into worlds unknown and times not our own.

While there is a shift now taking place with the emergence of the e-book, I believe books—actual printed works with covers in-between—will continue to have an integral role in our society, not least in the presentation and exchange of ideas, and in the simple yet beautiful act of painting with words as stories unfold and worlds are created and history is retold and leaders are formed. All this is but a foretaste of the power of books.

I say all that to simply set the stage for why I so enjoyed reading Tony Reinke’s new book, Lit!: A Christian Guide To Reading Books. I think Leland Ryken’s blurb got it right:

“Reinke writes with an infectious and winsome enthusiasm. It is hard to imagine a reader of this book who would not catch the spark for reading after encountering Reinke’s excitement about reading and his carefully reasoned defense of it.”

I picked up the book today and could not put it down. As a lover of books, to say I enjoyed it is an understatement. I was instructed and challenged all throughout. In the first half Reinke gives us the theological underpinnings of reading from within a Christian worldview. And in the latter half of the book he offers some practical advice on reading, ranging from how to decide what to read to note-taking in the marginalia to reading together with others in community. Rather than giving a thorough review of the book, I’ll just provide some of the quotes that resonated with me or simply made a point very well.

Here they are. Enjoy.

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“The concern is whether Christians … will be patient enough to find meaning embedded in words, or if we will grow content with the superficial pleasures offered to us in the rapidly shifting images in our culture…. [A]s a word-centered people we must learn to prize language in a visually-dominated world. If our hearts prioritize images over language, our hunger for books will erode.”

“We do not yet live in the age of the eye; we live in the age of the ear, we live in the age of revelation and promises and books…. For now we sing, ‘Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight.’ “

“The difficult work required to benefit from books is at odds with the immediate appeal of images. As Christians living in an image-saturated world, we must guard our conviction about the vital importance of words and language. For it is words and language that best communicate meaning.”

“Revealed truth does not answer all the questions in life, but it does provide a framework for understanding everything else.”

“Christians can read a broad array of books for our personal benefit, but only if we read with discernment. And we will only read with discernment if the biblical convictions are firmly settled in our minds and hearts. Once they are, we have a touchstone to determine what is pure gold and what is worthless.”

“God is the source of all beauty, and beautiful literature written by non-Christians is a gift from the Giver. And it’s a gift to he enjoyed.”

“Mature readers know when to read quickly and when to read slowly…. Each book has its own terrain…. The perceptive reader can read the terrain and shift gears in response.”

“We get one chance at this life. We have one body, one mind, and one life to live. Reading provides us with a vicarious experience of others’ lives.”

“Reading literature is about absorption, about bring lost in a story, and about delighting in the beautiful prose of a gifted writer.”

“Reading is a discipline, and all disciplines require self-discipline, and self-discipline is the one thing our sinful flesh will resist.”

“Book reading is not just a matter of  time management; it’s a matter of warfare.”

“[W]e like distraction. We want distraction. Distraction is how we stay busy enough to avoid the self-discipline required to read books.”

“I am quick to Tweet and slow to think. I am quick to Google and slow to ponder.”

“Childlike faith in the gospel is an unsinkable buoy when we find ourselves drowning in the details of a books that is over our head.”

“In the good news of Jesus Christ, overwhelmed readers find peace, and joy, and the courage to keep reading…. We grab a new book and we press on, not as slaves bound to a chore, but as liberated sinners who read to delight in the gifts of our God. We press on, reading and thanking God for the light we do see in books, and for his illuminating grace that lights our way.”

Reinke near the end of the book makes the point that mature readers…

1) prize wisdom;

2) cherish old books;

3) keep literature in its place;

4) avoid making books into idols; and

5) cling to the Savior.

If you already are a reader or  would simply like to begin building the experience of reading in your life, then this is a book for you. Tolle lege.

(UPDATE: Just for today — Feb. 26, 2013 — the Kindle version is marked down to $0.99. Get it here.)

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