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Volume 8, Issue 1: Poetics

Poetry and Culture War

Douglas Wilson

The great temptation is to answer the general deterioration of our culture with nothing other than high-octane theology and apologetics. Those small bands of Christians who see what is going on around us are tempted constantly to explain to others, bluntly and plainly, what they see. Don't you understand? And when they turn to the work of education, they want to graduate epistemological Navy Seals, who are all ready to board the choppers, leave the carrier Reformation, and head out on the mission now .

This thinking is understandable of course. Truth in our age is so neglected, and that same truth is so important, that we think we have no time to varnish it. Just set it out there, and if the God-haters don't like it, well, let them learn to cope. While this has a certain appeal, the problem is that the unvarnished truth is not really the truth.
In a fallen world, truth cannot go out unadorned and remain what it is. "Naphtali is a deer let loose; he uses beautiful words" (Gen. 49:21). When truth is spoken apart from beauty, it is not really the truth anymore. "Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one" (Col. 4:6). Our words are to be lovely, seasoned with salt, suited and adapted to each occasiona believing application of Aristotle's definition of rhetoric.
Shelley was consequently speaking more wisely than he knew when he said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. We mobilize to restore decency to America through legislation, and when we are done all we have are a bunch of laws and many times not even that. In contrast, poets and writers shape the minds of generations -- whether for good or ill. But here we prove ourselves to be virtually without letters. We, the people of the Word, ought to be masters of words; Christians ought to be preeminent in wordsmithing. We are not. In this hour of crisis, we produce and sell mountains of smarmy goo and oceans of treacle. We wouldn't know a great book if it ran naked through the CBA convention.
Of course the mindless relativism of the secular literary community shows us what creativity and letters will do without the ballast of truth. That is plain enough. But the aesthetic stupidity displayed in the modern evangelical world also shows us what ballast does without a ship.
A great need, therefore, exists for an uncompromised Christian liberal arts course of study at the college level. By "uncompromised" we must mean that a thorough understanding of the biblical antithesis must permeate the course of study. Great literature and history are not to be studied and written because "other things" are just as important as the truth, or important in their own autonomous realm. Rather, it is because the truth is so important it must go everywhere. Students must be trained to think like Christians everywhere they go, and in everything they read. When they are trained to think in terms of the biblical antithesis, they are then (and only then) equipped to plunder the gold of the Egyptians. As T.S. Eliot stated it, "So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us." 1 But without the antithesis fixed firmly in our minds, we will be seduced.
But why not train the students "in the antithesis," and have them stay away from that bawdy house? Why have students study Homer and Virgil and Milton and Shakespeare? Why not just stick to Van Til? The simple answer is that those who "stick to" Van Til have misunderstood him.
And the more complex answer really addresses the same point. The truth is that there is no secular/sacred distinction. "The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness" (1 Cor. 10:26). We cannot preserve any truth by isolating it from the rest of God's world. To do so kills it. This includes any truths stated in this paragraph. The division is not between the secular and the sacred, between theology and literature. The antithesis is between seeing the entire world the way God says to see it or refusing to see the entire world the way God says to see it.
For example, a man who reads but refuses to interpret The Aeneid with biblical eyes is disobeying God. The man who refuses to read it at all because he only has time for "theology" and "spiritual things" is doing the same thing -- limiting truth to a pietistic ghetto. The outside and impious world is left alone in its rebellion, free to assault the faith at its leisure. C.S. Lewis said it this way: "If you attempted . . . to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions." 2 And this is precisely the trap that evangelical pietism has fallen into. Refusing a cultural life is impossible; all attempts at it will only produce contemptible and immoral culture. Pietism must be rejected by us because it leads directly to impiety.
This is a central part of our vision for the students at New St. Andrews. We are seeking to give them a firm understanding of the central doctrines of classical Protestantism and showing them how these doctrines relate to everything . We are not interested in a truncated "five-point" system. Although we are a liberal arts college, we can count higher than that. When the goodness and greatness of God are well understood, that understanding will sustain the student everywhere he goes. And he should go after a good book.

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