Art as a Spiritual Ambassador

Jake was having a hard time. Life had begun to force his foundational ideas into question. He had been raised in a “good Christian family” and had imbibed Bible-based teaching all his life. All this felt safe and secure to Jake until certain conversations, events, readings, and observations of others’ lives and beliefs raised questions and proposed new perspectives he had never considered. He found himself reconsidering his concept of “truth.”

While Jake’s experience was grounded in his Christian religious environment, Mary’s was not. She grew up in a secular, intellectual family whose interests and commitments precluded any kind of spiritual or transcendent reality. Mary’s sense of personal identity and meaning for life had been nurtured in an environment of ethical and philosophical relativism. Like Jake, however, Mary’s experiences in life were leading her to a place where she began to doubt some fundamental “truths” she had grown up with. She recognized that at a practical level of living she had never embraced and tried to live the full implications of the dogma of relativism. Mary realized that she actually believed that “big truths” might be found and that to live her life pursuing them was vital.

These two young lives existed in profoundly different environments and spiritual/philosophical circumstances. Yet Jake and Mary, one Christian and the other profoundly not, found themselves sharing a common “intellectual space” where the pursuit of what is true became an ethical and human necessity—in spite of the fact that each of their respective home worlds was indifferent, if not hostile, to their questions and pursuit of a wider horizon for truth. Jake and Mary had entered what I refer to as the “Critical Zone”—a mental, intellectual, and, ultimately, spiritual space. This conceptual space shared by both religious and non-religious people exists between the church and the world. The persons who inhabit this Critical Zone are those within whose souls and minds has arisen a set of intellectual, psychological, and spiritual conditions—conditions prompted by a lack of authentic intellectual freedom and permission to ask questions in either religious or secular cultures.

The Critical Zone I am conceiving is what I believe Kierkegaard had in mind when he described the inwardness of the person seeking the “Good in truth”:

For in a spiritual sense, place is not something external, to which a slave might come against his will when the overseer uses his scourge. And the path is not something that does not matter whether one rides forwards or backwards. But the place and the path are within a man and just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation. [Emphasis mine.] (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, p. 84; Harper & Row Edition, 1956.)


History is Judeo-Centric

I have a new interest: I am trying to educate myself about things Jewish. My wife’s and my recent two-week trip to Jerusalem to visit my daughter and son-in-law significantly reinforced this interest. They are both students at Hebrew University and have spent a lot of time studying and exploring the city, so they were excellent guides. The trip was extremely interesting, educational, and thought provoking. Since then I have read several books and seen several documentaries about Jewish history and Jewish life. I suspect that a fair share of my contributions to this blog will be related to this interest, so it might be worthwhile to explain how this interest developed.

I have long believed that the Old Testament is much more important than Christians recognize it to be. The vast majority of Bible teaching in our churches is from the New Testament. Rarely is the Old Testament taught, and when it is, the teaching is usually based on well-known stories taken in isolation from the surrounding text. Yet, it is clear from reading the New Testament that its authors were steeped in a thorough understanding of the Old Testament. As a result, I have had a long-standing interest in educating myself about the Old Testament in order to better understand the New Testament.

My long-standing interest has been reinvigorated and deepened as a result of my children’s activities in recent years. Three or four years ago, on a whim, my daughter decided to go to Israel and work as a volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces for six weeks. No one in my family had ever been there. Nikole was just looking for an adventure, thought that sounded interesting, and took advantage of the opportunity. Most of the time she worked on military bases, but she was able to travel on the weekends. Although she had many memorable experiences, most significantly she had an opportunity to meet and get to know many soldiers (both men and women are required to serve in the Israeli military). She learned a lot about Israeli culture and the people of Israel. She found Israeli culture to be not without flaws but all in all very attractive, so attractive in fact that she decided to try to return and spend an extended period of time living there. She started saving her money, teaching herself modern Hebrew, and applying to graduate school. A year and a half ago she left to study in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile my oldest son, who had been studying in Germany, decided to travel to Israel to volunteer as his sister had done. Stefan’s experience was a bit more tense than his sister’s—he was forced to spend a day in a bomb shelter when a fire-fight broke out on the border with Lebanon where he was stationed—but his response to his trip was much like his sister’s. He really enjoyed his interactions with the Israeli soldiers.

Then a little over a year ago Stefan and my third child, Noah, went to Israel to visit their sister. Noah had not had the same level of exposure to Israeli culture as his brother and sister had, but he, too, found it very attractive and is currently trying to find a way to return and study there.

I was frankly surprised that Nikole, Stefan, and Noah all had such positive responses to Israel. A few years ago, our whole family had taken a trip to Germany. Nikole, Stefan, and Noah, who all speak German, have spent considerable time in Germany since then, but their response to Germany is mixed. German culture is interesting, and much about it is enjoyable and commendable, but something about German culture is also off-putting. I am sure that my children would all jump at the chance to visit Germany again, but they would all say that their interest in Israel is more profound. Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is special; it has sparked a particularly intense interest.

Conversations with my children, both during and after their experiences in Israel, inspired me to do more reading about the history of the Jews and Judaism. In particular, I read some books about Jewish culture at the time of Christ. As I read, something I ought to have realized long ago struck me. I have long believed that the Old Testament was a storehouse of concepts, imagery, and literary forms that the New Testament authors exploited as they wrote, but I had dismissed all other Jewish writings of the Intertestimental and the New Testament periods because they were not inspired. My recent reading has convinced me that just because these other writings were not canonical does not mean that they did not influence the thinking and the writing of Jesus and the Apostles, who were all immersed in the Jewish cultural milieu of the first century and were interacting with others who were similarly immersed. Of course they brought this cultural background with them when they composed their works. When it comes to interpreting the New Testament, therefore, I now understand that being familiar with the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of Philo, Josephus, and others would be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, as I have been working my way through the New Testament book of Matthew, I have been struck by how Judeo-centric it is. This has dovetailed with my growing appreciation for how Judeo-centric the whole Bible is. And, in fact, from God’s perspective, all of history seems to be Judeo-centric. Of all the peoples of the world, God chose one otherwise insignificant person (Abraham) and decided to make all of the history of mankind revolve around his descendants. So the Jews have played and continue to play a key role in God’s economy.

I recently watched a documentary about the 1967 Six-Day War during which the Israelis fought on three fronts against their Arab neighbors and, without intending to do so, more than doubled the size of their country. They also got possession of Jerusalem, including the temple mount. To see at how many junctures the mistakes of the Arabs combined with the good fortune of the Israelis to produce this result was astounding; it is hard not to see the hand of God in the outcome. It is also hard to look at the history of mankind without being impressed by the disproportionately prominent role that Jews have played in the unfolding of events. And this is just what we should expect on the basis of the biblical data.

If the Jews are indeed the protagonist in the history of mankind, then it seems to me that keeping an eye on them and what is happening in their midst is good to do. For this reason, I want to improve my knowledge of modern Israeli culture and society and better understand where it is going and why. I am particularly intrigued by the religious developments currently taking place within Judaism.

I am convinced, however, that in order to understand what is happening in Jewish culture now, understanding its roots is important. The curriculum at Gutenberg College looks at the evolution of intellectual thought in Western culture in order to better understand our contemporary culture and thought. I have found this very profitable. I am so sold on this approach that I would like to do the same thing with Jewish thought. I am in the process of constructing a list of the “great books” of Jewish thought so that I can read them.

An outstanding feature of Jewish culture is the high regard for the Torah that Jews have maintained; generation after generation of Jews have spent countless man-hours studying the Old Testament. Recently, I met with a Rabbi whose grandfather could recite the entire Old Testament in English or Hebrew. That is the kind of attention to the text that Jewish culture attaches to the Old Testament. So then, the history of Jewish thought is dominated by interaction with the Old Testament text. Every Jewish author brings this background, in one way or another, to his writing. In a sense, therefore, the entire history of Jewish thought constitutes a giant commentary on the Old Testament. In my experience, some Bible commentaries are virtually worthless, but others can be very helpful. Similarly, the commentary of some Jewish scholars is misguided, but I have found some of the most helpful observations and comments regarding Old Testament texts from Jewish scholars. The most helpful commentaries are not necessarily those with whom I most agree but rather those written by people who take the text seriously. Many Jewish scholars take the Old Testament text very seriously. Thus a study of Jewish thought holds promise for better understanding both Jewish culture and the Bible.


Science: Empiricism, Skepticism, or Cooperation?

I was recently surprised and delighted to discover a relatively unknown philosopher of science who possesses deep insights. His name is William Whewell (pronounced Hugh-well), a Cambridge professor from the early to mid-1800s. His breadth and depth of knowledge, his insight into the nature of knowledge, and the sheer volume of his writings are truly incredible. In his time, Whewell was one of the foremost scholars in Europe, becoming the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1841. Today, alas, he is completely forgotten.

Whewell’s Science

Whewell’s notoriety in the 1800s was due to his extensive writings in mathematics, science, and philosophy of science. One of his major works focused on the theory of the ocean tides. Prior to Whewell, Newton had put forth a theory of the tides based on the gravitational attraction of the moon. However, the particular tidal variations depended on local shoreline shape and ocean depth, making predictions based on Newton’s theories incomplete. Whewell’s approach was to create a more exact theory based upon extensive tidal measurements. He faced the problem, however, that no such measurements existed, at least none on a broad scale. Undaunted, Whewell created a bold plan to gather such measurements. By drawing upon connections with scientific societies, friends, acquaintances, and seamen, he was able to collect a set of tidal measurements for a specific period of two weeks from many different locales around the world. From these, he produced a detailed mathematical theory accurate enough for maritime navigation. Whewell thus created the first international scientific collaborative project.

This first innovation was one of many for Whewell. He was also involved in the creation of the first scientific society that was open to all interested parties. The existing societies (such as the Royal Society of England) were aristocratic, insular, and catered to the interests of the well-to-do. Whewell’s society allowed the common man to enter the field. Whewell was also the first to promote a new, more modern mathematics curriculum to Cambridge University—a curriculum more suited to the problems of the times. And to top it all off, he was the first to promote the use of the word “scientist,” replacing the older designation “natural philosopher.”

Whewell’s Philosophy

Whewell’s main contribution, however, was to philosophy of science. Whewell argued for an inductive approach to science in which new creative insights are superinduced upon existing facts to organize and make sense of those facts. He elegantly blended creative speculation with adherence to facts, reason with sense experience, and the subjective with the objective. The one without the other was, for Whewell, meaningless. His philosophy, which derived from a study of history, rejected some of the most prominent beliefs about knowledge: skepticism, in which true knowledge is not possible; empiricism, in which knowledge is based solely on experiment; and rationalism, in which only mathematical proofs constituted true knowledge.

He applied his inductive approach broadly. I have already mentioned his fact-gathering methods on the tides. His foray into architectural history began with a careful survey of gothic cathedrals throughout Europe. In economics, he visited a wide variety of different socio-economic groups to learn about their economic conditions, and he also argued that an accurate economic theory could only be developed after a lengthy and careful study of economic history. Whewell even approached the philosophy of science inductively. He first wrote six volumes on the history and development of science before he was ready to show, from history, that science progressed according to his philosophy of science.

Whewell’s Legacy

In the end, Whewell’s ideas in philosophy of science did not become fashionable, despite their merit. Scientists and philosophers of science were starting to become specialists, and those specialists were more enamored of German philosophies that pursued skepticism, empiricism, and rationalism. The irony underlying this developing specialization is striking. Whewell was a true generalist. (One author called him a mathematician-mineralogist-architectural historian-linguist-classicist-physicist-geologist-historian-philosopher-theologian-mountainclimbing-poet.) His lifelong project was to encourage careful inductive science. To do so, however, more measurements, more cooperation, and more specialization were required. Thus, ironically, his efforts as a generalist set the stage for specialists. There was no longer any place for the type of scholar he was, and this slowly created the wedge between the sciences and the humanities that we see today.  Unfortunately, Whewell’s legacy of specialization did not include the best he had to offer: his philosophy of science. Modern education has very little patience with generalists like Whewell. Today, the scholar of quality is necessarily the specialist. For all the benefits that come with specialization, what is lost is the ability to reflect on the nature and value of that specialty, an ability that Whewell had in spades.


Tim’s Top Ten: Short Stories

What makes for a great short story? Thrift, action, and a twist. Each short tale in my list is told economically, moves forward briskly, and zings the reader at the end.

This list was inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who was greater, Plato or Aristotle? Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish just like these classically-trained achievers: Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, and William Gladstone.  Read more about Gutenberg’s curriculum here.

Without further delay, Tim’s Top Ten Short Stories.

10.  “The Grasshopper,” Anton Chekhov (1860). A husband suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, though he never confronts her. His good manners sicken her and justify, in her mind, her affair. “That man,” she thinks, “is killing me with his magnanimity!” Read the story here. Chekhov might be better remembered for his plays Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, but he was a master of the short-story. (Side note: Incredible that Russia produced three of history’s greatest fiction writers—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov—within a span of a generation.)

9.     “The Birthmark,” Nathanial Hawthorne (1843). The second-oldest story on my list might be the most contemporary. Leon Kass commenced President Bush’s 2002 Bioethics Council with a discussion of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” the story of a man who causes the death of his beloved by trying to raise her beyond mortal perfection.

8.     “The Overcoat,” Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol was overshadowed by his offspring, the Russian Trinity of storytelling (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov). But he was their godfather. This story prompted Dosteovsky’s famous remark, “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’.”

7.     “The Diamond Necklace,” Guy de Maupaussant (1884). De Maupaussant is considered France’s greatest short story writer. The “Necklace” tells the story of Mathilde Loisel, a commoner who imagines herself in high society. (Spoiler alert.) Mathilde borrows a diamond necklace to wear when attending a regal party. When she loses the necklace, she and her husband mortgage everything to recoup the cost.

6.     “A Small, Good Thing,” Raymond Carver (1989). Carver fused Anton Chekhov’s detached style (no moralizing!) with Hemingway’s thriftiness (no adjectives!) to become an American short-story master. His eye for detail and his ear for dialogue might be without peer in the twentieth century. This story has two published endings. The first, originally titled “The Bath,” ends bleakly. But “A Small, Good Thing” offers a glimpse of hope. (Two side notes: Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, three hours north of Gutenberg. Also: Director Robert Altman wove Carver’s short stories together into a haunting but almost forgotten movie called Short Cuts.)

5.     “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson (1948). Shirley Jackson didn’t dwell long on writing “The Lottery.” After a morning trip to the grocery, she dashed off “The Lottery” in two hours. When The New Yorker published it three weeks later, readers exploded. No New Yorker story ever received such heated response. Hundreds of pounds of letters poured in; hundreds cancelled their subscriptions. Few understood Jackson’s point, and she refused to interview or explain. Now, years after the furor, “The Lottery” has settled its place among America’s most famous short stories. (Side note: Jackson’s story touches a troubling thought: Troubled societies relieve tension through scapegoating. Philosopher Rene Girard says the Judeo-Christian tradition warns against and explicitly rejects this social tendency.)

4.     “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor (1955). “‘She would of been a good woman’,  The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” So speaks God’s curious mouthpiece in this cruel classic. The Catholic O’Connor rebelled against the flimsy spirituality of the Protestant South. Since those Protestants had split the body from the spirit, any good Catholic novelist knew her duty: reunite the body and soul through violence. (Side note: Paul Elie details friendship and correspondence between O’Connor and three other mid-century Catholics in a wonderful four-part biography called The Life You Save May Be Your Own.)

3.      “Araby,” James Joyce (1914). A heartbreaking coming-of-age story by the most celebrated author of the twentieth century. Joyce’s writing is always lyrical. Examples: “the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness”; her “soft rope of hair tossed from side to side.” John Updike’s lovely short story “A&P” is a retelling of “Araby” in 1960s America.

2.     “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Ernest Hemingway (1936). When a wounded lion charges Francis, he panics. In camp afterwards, his wife mocks him and eyes Wilson, their guide. Quintessential Hemingway in both subject and style. Short stories maximized Hemingway’s strengths: word-thrift and narrative subtext. His thrifty style was honed writing cable at the Kansas City Star. His use of subtext is the work of a genius craftsman. Nothing seems to happen, but the action churns below the text. “Francis Macomber” is a perfect example. Reading it still makes my palms sweat.

1.     “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry (1906).The famous, bittersweet story was written by American William Sydney Porter who used the pen-name O. Henry. “Magi” tells the story of Jim and Delia, a young married couple who are deeply in love. Despite having very little money, each parts with a prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other. If you’ve not read the story, I’ll not ruin it for you. Read it here.


Art and Great Books

Gutenberg has from its inception taught several courses on the arts. One could ask, “Why does a college whose curriculum centers on the great books concern itself with art?” Quite simply it is because the leadership and faculty of the college recognize the unique and powerful role the arts have played in human culture and consciousness from ancient times.

From earliest historical reckonings, humans have used instruments, languages, and creative symbols to communicate their interpretations of their world, their needs, their aspirations, and their deepest longings and feelings about themselves and the beautiful but often threatening world about them. Art, then—in music, painting, as well as literature, poetry, and theater—is a form of human communication that we use “to mirror life” to ourselves and to others. Along these lines, art historian and critic Allen Leepa comments:

When art fails to mirror life, it fails as art. Mirroring life, however, does not mean copying it. The artist does not merely set down a photographic record of his times. Rather, he reflects in this work the tempo, attitudes, aims, hopes, tensions, successes and failures of his era. He transposes these through his work. Because he is a member of society, he intuitively expresses its heartbeat. And when he works creatively he indicates to society a spiritually new direction. One has but to walk through one of our great museums to realize the feelings and ideas—the way of life—that were important, consciously and unconsciously, to the people of a particular epoch.

May we send you...?

Choose your subscriptions to our newsletter and/or email updates.


If this ministry is helpful to you, please consider supporting it as you are able. Even small donations help. Thank you.

Donate online