Recommendations

Have you read any good books, seen any good movies, eaten any good BBQ lately, or run into anything else that you would like to recommend to other Cranach readers?

The world of teen fiction

Christian journalist David Mills, editor of First Things, breaks down the version of reality reflected in the books teenagers read:

“Real life” young adult fiction—I am summarizing a huge and diverse set of books, but I think accurately, the bad books far outweighing the good—conveys several destructive assumptions to the kids who read it.

• Kids have horribly difficult lives, even if they have every comfort and pleasure in the world. Their families are dysfunctional, their parents self-absorbed or distant, their peers cruel, and their schools Darwinian. The best parents may love their child, but they just don’t understand her problems (the main character is usually a girl). In some cases, though not all, added to these problems are bad skin and hair, and the like.

• Families are rarely “havens in a heartless world,” but a trial that for obscure reasons must be endured, though evaded if possible, on the way to adulthood. Some siblings are kind, but most are either unconcerned (if older) or annoying (if younger) or else an ally in resisting their parents, and some are their parents’ favorites. The child’s real family is her set of friends. In a few stories, the main character may admire someone else’s parents or family life, but almost never her own.

• No one understands them, the people in authority over them least of all. The authorities do not see what the child actually experiences, and the child has little or no hope they ever will, which makes their advice and guidance laughably useless. You will, however, find more sympathetic teachers in these stories than sympathetic parents, and many more wise teachers than wise parents.

• Kids are alone to handle their problems, though they may have friends to help, and sometimes a sympathetic but often powerless teacher. Even then, sometimes their friends and teachers fail them or turn against them. Trust is dangerous.

• Girls are strong but often cruel and manipulative; boys are soft and stupid, though they can be physically brutal. Many of the girls’ books include one kind and supportive male, though he is sometimes a homosexual or at least “sensitive.” Attractive boys are rarely trustworthy, though such a boy sometimes becomes devoted to the girl after he has slept with her, and she feels empowered in dropping him.

• Talking explicitly about bodily functions, especially menstruation, is a sign of maturity and realism. Doing so embarrasses parents, because they are not as open and natural, and by implication mature, as their children.

• Sexual activity is not governed by any form of morality, at least any morality that can be formulated as a rule or law. It is at best wise or unwise, not right or wrong. Social standards are irrelevant. No one saves herself for marriage, unless she will see the pointlessness of this by the end of the book.

• But giving up your virginity is still treated as somehow special, governed by feelings that giving it up to this person is, somehow, right and to that one wrong. Virginity is something to be treasured and given up only to someone for whom you have some kind of affectionate feelings. It’s a morality of a sort, but not one that gives the child any criteria by which to measure those feelings. (Virginity is defined in the Clintonian way, with other sexual behaviors treated as if they weren’t exactly sexual.)

• That said, other sexual encounters are not governed by even a vague morality, but simply by calculation of the pleasures and costs involved, if engaged in freely and at the appropriate age. Your body is to be saved or spent in much the same way you save or spend the money in your bank account. To the extent sexual activity involves an exclusive commitment to someone else, it is a tool to be used in getting or securing that commitment, though not a very good tool.

As a rule, sexual activity is mainly recreational. It ought to be “safe,” though safety is almost always defined as protection from disease and conception, and sometimes from relational complications or emotional harm (always underestimated).

via Touchstone Archives: Bad Books for Kids.

The world of teenagers

More from David Mills on what he has learned from studying today’s teen fiction:

That [see the previous post] describes in outline what these books teach about the teenage life, but they also teach a lot about the world in which teenagers live.

• The good life requires having the things you want, whether you want straighter hair or a boyfriend or a car of your own or just a higher opinion of yourself. The books assume that the wealthier you are, the happier you should be, except when some sentimental lesson about the real importance of friends or self-respect is being taught. Their blissfully unquestioned materialism is astonishing.

• Politics doesn’t exist, history doesn’t exist, high culture doesn’t exist. The main character may have a friend who’s involved in some charity or relief effort, or maybe even a political cause, or who reads a lot of difficult books, or who plays a musical instrument or writes poetry, but she (again, usually a she) is only narrative color. If a political cause is mentioned, it is almost certainly environmentalism.

• Business, if it is thought about at all, is greedy, rapacious, uncaring, and environment-destroying, and produces conformity and monotony. The main characters feel this despite their desire for luxury items. Wealth, and indeed everything needed even for the simplest life, just appears, except when the story is about a poor child or a middle-class child who became poor. Gratitude is not encouraged.

• There is no question that can be solved only by rigorous, disciplined thought. The kid who reads philosophy may be a “brain,” but he is not to be imitated. All questions can be solved by a teenager thinking like a teenager.

• God doesn’t exist for any practical purpose. If you believe he does, you may ask him to bail you out, but you would never think to follow his rules, because his rules are really your parents’ and society’s irrational standards, which will make you unhappy.

• Religion is always formal and impersonal and the parents’ thing. (Although, interestingly, some stories show a sneaking respect for Catholicism and its mysteries, though that respect may be expressed through a particularly notable hatred. Just try to find a wise old priest in one of these stories.) Spirituality can be really cool, though, especially if it’s Eastern or Native American.

• Nevertheless, youth should sometimes think about the ultimate questions, though no one ever seems to come to a conclusion other than high-school-level existentialism. Life is probably meaningless, but you can make your own meaning and create an authentic life by an act of will. Accept your limitations, don’t look for the big answers, don’t submit to tradition or authority, and do what feels most natural and right to you.

• The answer to the kids’ problems is always some form of growth and reconciliation, even resignation: of learning from the experience, accepting it, and getting tough enough to get through it. The answer is rarely any kind of heroism or self-transcendence.

• The hope presented in these books is one of two kinds: In the lighter, sillier books it is merely getting what you want, particularly a new boyfriend or better skin; and in the more serious ones it is surviving until college or adulthood, when you will finally be free to live in a world you want and to make yourself what you would like to be. The hope is never external or transcendent.

via Touchstone Archives: Bad Books for Kids.

My last board meeting at CPH

Well, I just finished my last board meeting at Concordia Publishing House.  When I was first elected by the LCMS convention back in 1998, I did not realize that the term of office was the same as the U.S. Senate, 6 years!  Then I got re-elected.  I’ve been going to quarterly meetings for 12 years.  That’s 48 meetings!

And they have been eventful.  Lots of changes, controversies, and challenges were taken up by the board during the last 12 years.  Now, I leave with a good feeling.  The quality of the books and other resources being published at CPH has shot up during my term, and now the house is turning out books like the Lutheran Study Bible, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, The Lutheran Service Book, the Concordia, and scores of other superb products.  That quality includes Biblical and confessional fidelity and depth.  Not only that, the company has never been stronger financially, defying the times and the trends.

So, farewell, CPH!  I’ll miss my quarterly box of free books, but you are in good hands.

The sacramental imagination

A common notion in studies of Christianity and the arts  is “the sacramental imagination.”  It goes like this:  Christians with a high view of the sacraments believe that spiritual realities are mediated by means of physical things.  Christian artists with those beliefs, therefore, can easily employ images derived from the material world in order to communicate their faith.  This is also why so many Christian artists are Roman Catholics, a church whose sacramental theology encourages this kind of imagination.

That may be.  But it occurred to me–while contemplating that “Luther and the Body” article I blogged about earlier in the course of this road trip that I’m still on (driving long hours giving time for just thinking)–that Lutheran sacramental theology offers a basis for this sacramental imagination more than Roman Catholicism does.

The Roman Catholic view of Holy Communion teaches that the physical bread and wine is no longer present. We receive Christ’s Body and Blood only.  We perceive the “accidents” of bread and wine, their appearance, but the only “substance” is that of Christ.   This take on the physical material reality seems to be more that of Eastern monism–that the physical realm is an illusion–than an actual affirmation of the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual.

The Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence, though, teaches that the bread and the wine, in their physicality, are still present, as is the actual Body and Blood of Christ.  (Again, don’t call this “consubstantiation,” which is the Roman Catholic attempt to explain this  teaching in terms of their own “substance” and “accidents” distinction that Lutheranism rejects.)

The mode of Christ’s presence is explained not in terms of different “substances” but in terms of “the ubiquity of Christ.”  That is, just as God is omnipresent without displacing the existence of other objects, Christ, because of His personal union of the divine and human natures, can be, in His body, present in bread and wine.   Not that He is in the Sacrament only in the sense of God being everywhere, but in a unique sacramental union in which He is present specifically through the Word of the Gospel, his body and blood being given and shed “for you.”

Now, this kind of teaching first of all is going to encourage those who believe it to think of God in Christ as being not far above the universe, looking down, as the imagination of many Christians has Him, but, rather, as being very close.  God, of course, is both transcendent and immanent, but the latter often gets minimized, which it can’t in Lutheran spirituality.

Furthermore, Lutheran theology also teaches the presence of God in vocation.  (It is God who gives us this day our daily bread through the vocation of the farmer and the baker; God milks the cows through the work of the milkmaid; God creates new life by working through mothers and fathers; vocation is a mask of God, etc., etc.)  This again encourages people to see the spiritual dimensions of the physical world.

For artists, it means that not only physical images can manifest the spiritual realm, the very act of creating–whether by paint, words, film, or whatever medium one’s vocation involves–manifests not just the presence of God but His activity, that He creates by means of human creation.

Shakespeare and sexual morality

The notable scholar and Catholic commentator Anthony Esolen–whom I have had the privilege of hanging out with at a classical education conference at Our Savior’s in Houston–has written a fine essay on Shakespeare’s consistent theme of chastity, not just for women, but (rare in his day) for men.

There is an abundance of evidence to show that Shakespeare was a profoundly Christian playwright—and far more thoroughly concerned with the theology of grace, repentance, and redemption than any of his contemporaries. Here I should like to note one characteristic of his view of the world that seems to spring from his Christian faith—for it certainly does not spring from any recrudescence of paganism in the Renaissance, nor from the worldly laxity that sets in with the fading of western man’s assurance of Christian dogma and morals. For Shakespeare, chastity is as near to an absolute value as it is possible for a virtue to be.

via Desires Run Not Before Honor | First Things.

Esolen then makes his case by examining play after play, noble character after noble character.  Shakespeare does not ignore sex.  Far from it.  But his heroes, however ardent in their love, reject having sex before marriage.

HT: David Mills


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