Revisiting Augustine’s Distrust of Literature

This is the second post in a series of three. Be sure to check out the first post and third post as well!

Last week I posted a brief article on Augustine’s suspicious attitude toward literature. This article is the first in brief series I have planned on how Christians should view literature.

Given the comments I received on my initial post, it became clear to me that I had to make my case more clearly. So in this post I hope to clarify my argument about Augustine’s distrust of literature.

Saint Augustine by Sandro Botticelli

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli

Definition and Summary

First of all, I use the term “literature” to refer to imaginative, fictional, or mythical narratives. In the fourth century AD, this would be limited mostly to epic poetry and drama. Literature, then, refers to a genre of writing distinct from philosophy and rhetoric. This use of terms is consistent with my translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Maria Boulding’s translation for the Augustinian Heritage Institute). I have too little knowledge of Latin to do anything other than trust the translator.

Second, I summarized Augustine’s charges against literature as follows:

There is no real distinction between the pulpit and the classroom.  I tried to put God into every book and sport in Justin.  That was my ideal, to spread a sense of his presence so that it would not be confined to prayers and sacred studies and to spread it in such a way as to make the school joyful.

Louis Auchincloss
The Rector of Justin (New York: Mariner Books, 1964, reprinted 2002), 232

Why Augustine Didn’t Trust Literature

This is the first post in a series of three. Be sure to check out the second post and third post as well!

In the past decade, American Christians have become much more aware of the important role art and literature play in the life of faith. But there are still many, many Christians who are deeply suspicious of literature.

This suspicion is ancient, originating in the fledgling Church of the first century. The Church was birthed into the Augustan Roman culture, with its eloquent and decadent literature, its precise and pontificating philosophy. For the earliest Christians, literature was inextricable from Roman paganism. To read literature was to immerse oneself in a vision of the world clearly opposed to the teachings of Christ.

And so Tertullian, an early Church father, famously exclaimed, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” What place does pagan literature have in the Church? Why should Christians waste their time reading anything other than the Holy Scriptures?

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Through the following centuries, other famous Christian thinkers echoed Tertullian’s rhetorical challenge. Abelard asked, “What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospel, Cicero with the Apostle?” From Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin challenged the local monks by demanding to know “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”

But the strongest Christian argument against literature was voiced by none other than St. Augustine. His argument was strengthened by the fact that before being converted, Augustine had been thoroughly trained in classical literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. So Augustine’s condemnation is nothing less than damning.

Later the headmaster sent for Scott-King.

“You know,” he said, “we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term?”

“I thought that would be about the number.”

“As you know I’m an old Greats man myself.  I deplore it as much as you do.  But what are we to do?  Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete’ man any more.  They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world.  You can hardly blame them, can you?”

“Oh yes,” said Scott-King.  “I can and do.”

“I always say you are a much more important man here than I am.  One couldn’t conceive of Granchester without Scott-King.  But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?”

“Oh yes.  Often.”

“What I was going to suggest was–I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics?  History, for example, preferably economic history?”

“No, headmaster.”

“But, you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

“Then what do you intend to do?”

“If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics.  I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.”

“There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly.  I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”

Evelyn Waugh
Scott-King's Modern Europe (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1949), 88-89

In this LitBit video, we discuss how C. S. Lewis illustrates true virtue in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Contrary to what many thinkers argue, virtue is not a matter of right feeling or right intention, but of right action.

If you’re interested in the Chronicles of Narnia class I mention in the video, click here for more information.

If this video is helpful to you, be sure to share it with someone.  Or let me know how it helped you by leaving a comment below.

The Love of Story Online Class

For years people have been asking me to offer a class that teaches grown-ups how to read and enjoy literature. To all of you who asked—I’m finally answering!

I’m very excited to announce my first online class: The Love of Story. This 10-week online class studies how stories shape our lives. Through reading and discussion, you will learn what stories are guiding your life and how to improve them. Ultimately, you will learn to live a story that is truly human.

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As we go through the class, you will also learn a method of reading that will help you get far more out of your reading than ever before. This is the method I use in my personal read and to teach my literature classes.

I’ve taught many great books and lots of great classes in the last fifteen years, but I’ve never been more excited about any class than I am about this one!

Interview with Gregg Valeriano on Classical Education

Last week I was able to interview Gregg Valeriano about his recent lecture, “The Character of Classical and Christian Education.”

Delivered at the Petra Educator’s Conference, Gregg’s talk discusses the nature of classical, Christian education; how it differs from secular classicism; the dangers, scope, and goals of classical education; and some of the best classical methodologies.

Our interview covers the key points of Gregg’s lecture:


Your Turn

Take a half-minute and leave a comment below:

  • What did you think of the interview?
  • What questions do you still have about classical, Christian education?

How to Add Google Fonts to Your Mac

Last week I was working on a new project for you all, and I needed to use a font from Google.  After a bit of research and tinkering, I figured out how to download the right Google font and install it on my Mac.

I wanted to share with you what I learned for two reasons:

  1. Beauty is important.  Beauty and excellence rarely occur apart.  This is true in life and in education.  Spending a little bit of time thinking through typography, layout, colors, etc. can dramatically improve your work.
  2. I wanted to show off my new screencast software!

So I made a quick little tutorial explaining how to install a Google font on your Mac (it’s useful even for PC users).  Here it is:

PC users would still download the font in the same way.  You’d just install the .ttf files in a different location.  Do some quick Google research to figure out where to paste the .ttf files.

Your Turn:  What other kinds of tutorials would be helpful to you?