Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Anna Gets It Right: Disney's Frozen, C.S. Lewis, and the Primacy of Caritas

            Unless you have been living in a wilderness cave, by now you likely have seen Frozen, Disney's most recent animated movie; if somehow you missed the movie, you have at least seen the numerous videos circulating around the world of parents lipsynching songs or weathermen parodies. Frozen quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time, grossing nearly $400 million in North America alone.
            On the surface, Frozen is about two sisters: Elsa, the elder of the two who has unwanted magical powers which she cannot hide; and Anna, the younger, more carefree and innocent of the two. Elsa, after years of hiding her powers and being what she calls "the good girl I have to be", finally gives in and embraces her magical powers: what humanists might call realizing "who she truly is" or the embracing the "real" her. Elsa, in a selfish emotional breakdown, forsakes the kingdom she is supposed to be leading and retreats to the mountains to live alone, leaving in her wake a land covered in an eternal and deadly winter. When Anna bravely treks up the mountain to bring her back, Elsa's self-indulgence takes a fatal turn and her magic freezes Anna's heart. In a race to save their friend, Kristoff and Olaf whisk Anna away to a troll shaman, who tells them only an "act of true love" can save Anna.
            This is the point in the movie where things get wonderfully relevant for Christians. Kristoff and Olaf immediately assume the shaman means "an act of amor" - that is, an act of romance - and as such they rush to Hans, Prince of the Southern Isles, the antagonist of the story, whom they mistakenly assume to be Anna's "true love". They deliver Anna to Hans, who reveals himself as a villain, confesses he never actually "loved" Anna, but feigned love to get to the throne of Arendelle. Hans leaves Anna to die of a frozen heart, and the situation for Anna looks bleak. Hoping to survive, Anna and Olaf the Snowman go out into the storm to search for Kristoff, hoping a kiss from him can thaw Anna's frozen heart.

            The climax of the movie occurs as Anna, near death, stumbles across the frozen fjord and spies Kristoff racing towards her in the distance. Out of the corner of her eye, Anna sees Hans about to murder an unsuspecting Elsa. In a moment of indecision, Anna is torn between hurrying to Kristoff and kissing him, securing for herself the "act of true love" that will save her, or rushing to save Elsa from Hans' deadly blow. Anna chooses to forsake her "true love" and any chance of saving her own life, and instead rushes to Elsa's aid. She throws herself in front of Hans' sword, freezing to the core at the last second, deflecting the blow and saving Elsa. When Anna's heart begins to thaw, everyone realizes the self-sacrificing act of Anna casting aside any chance to save her own life in order to save Elsa, the very person responsible for Anna's own death, is in fact "the act of true love" that Anna needed to save her. The movie closes as Elsa realizes that it is this higher, self-sacrificing form of love that can free the kingdom from the eternal winter. Elsa gets her kingdom, Anna gets the boy, and Olaf gets his summer.

            While Frozen is wonderfully animated, humorous, and full of songs endearing to young people, I think it resonates with viewers for reasons that transcend any of these: there is a deeper story in the movie that needs to be told. What is more, in this era of polarizing worldviews, the deeper moral of Frozen is one that can not only be embraced by Christians, but it is central to Christianity. The movie provides unbelievable context for presenting people - young and old alike - with the gospel and discussing another core tenent of the Christian faith: the primacy of caritas, or "divine love", over amor, or "romantic love".

            The plot twist of the movie works wonderfully because it exploits a mistaken idea that is at the core of the human condition: the tragically misplaced idea that what the Romans and Medievalists called amor, or romantic love, is the highest form of love in the universe. The examples and evidence of this idea in popular culture span centuries and are everywhere: from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Othello, to Jack and Rose from Titanic, to the sexual liberation movements of the last 50 years, to the current astronomical divorce rates worldwide. All point to humanity's willingness to sacrifice anything and everything on the altar of amor. When Anna and Kristoff are told that they need "an act of true love" to save Anna, and they immediately assume that means a kiss from Hans, no one in the audience thinks twice about it. I mean, why would they? What else is there?

          The failure of Hans to save Anna works splendidly to show the fragile nature of amor. It is inadequate to sustain or save Anna, even though all the characters, including Anna herself, assume it to be the most powerful force in the world. Amor is not the panacea, the end-all, cure-all that our culture holds it up to be. When people believe it to be, they are all too frequently dashed on the rocks of broken relationships, marriages, and families. Amor was never meant to endure forever; as Lewis points out, would we even want it to? Would not an eternal "newly-wed" stage only succeed in making us insane? How could anyone hope to sustain that level of emotion for years on end?  No, again looking to Lewis, amor is only the spark that is meant to get the engine of a marriage running; it must be sustained by something more.

          But unbeknownst to many Americans, thankfully there is something beyond amor. Amor is merely one of a small handful of what Lewis calls "natural loves", but something greater remains. For Christians, this reality is readily apparent: the higher form of love, far superior by far than even the most pure example of amor, is what St. Jerome called caritas. It is the divine love of God for us, a love unmerited and yet eternal. First shown by God towards us so that we might show it to others. Caritas is the love spoken of in Paul's famous treatise on love found in his first letter to the Corinthians:

"Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails."

            For audiences, the moment Anna chose to forsake amor and her love of her own self should be a moment of incredible clarity. The primacy of caritas is brought into sharp relief when we realize that "an act of true love" is not a self-indulgent pursuit of amor, but a self-sacrificing love, independent of all emotion, unfailing and eternal. As Paul wrote, it is the love found in Christ's death on the Cross while we were yet sinners. This is "true love". The writers of Frozen either knew this fully or stumbled into it. Either way the result is the same: Frozen is a movie that we as Christians can embrace and use as a context to talk to our children and others about caritas, the love that never fails.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Case for Latin Education

“The study of Roman culture which typically accompanies Latin study informs the study of any Western literature, art, or culture as well. [. . .] If Latin were dead, every Western culture and language would be also bereft of life.” -- Matthew Potts, Admissions Counselor, University of Notre Dame

     The administrator or instructor who places a high degree of importance on incorporating Latin into their curriculum will at some point almost inevitably be placed in the position of justifying that decision to parents, other administrators and instructors, school boards, et cetera. The concern of these individuals is understandable on the surface: Latin is no longer a spoken language, and as such the utility of studying it seems doubtful, particularly to those who have been educated in the modern secular government school, where utility is paramount. However, when the inquiry progresses beyond the surface, Latin advocates have a quiver full of arguments at their disposal. For organizational purposes, the arguments for Latin can be divided into two basic categories: the theoretical case for Latin, and the practical case for Latin. When considered in toto, the case for including Latin in the curriculum is compelling and powerful.
            The theoretical arguments build the strongest overall case for learning Latin. The most convincing of those arguments is that the study of Latin increases cognitive ability. This argument is predicated on the science that the brain functions more like a muscle that can be developed than a file cabinet with a finite capacity that can be filled.[1] There is a popular physical workout on the market known as P90X, which emphasizes intense and dramatic exercise built upon a concept known as "muscle confusion." Muscle confusion is the idea that muscles eventually get used to routines that they perform regularly, and as a result those routines grow less efficient for building muscle over time. The P90X workout avoids this pitfall by regularly mixing up exercises so that muscles are consistently challenged and workouts do not become routine. Latin is the P90X workout for the mind. Many people tend to view IQ as something that is fixed and hereditary, but the studies of Bunge and Mackey have thrown that view into question. When the human brain is challenged and stretched, particularly with exercises that require skills and processes which are atypical for it—that create P90X-style confusion—human cognitive ability increases. This is particularly true for learning a new language, especially an inflected language like Latin that is demanding and requires precision.[2] The modern educator rarely considers academic training of this kind: they instead tend to focus on training which merely serve to transfer information from one source, a text or a teacher, to another, the student. But if educators incorporate into their curriculum exercises that develop the minds of their students, the students' ability to assimilate, organize, and articulate information become all the more powerful.
            A second theoretical argument for Latin instruction is that it also encourages mental discipline. Latin not only develops the cognitive ability of the brain, but it helps to create a cognitive framework which can be applied by the student to other disciplines. Due to its declensions and conjugations and its technical grammar, Latin requires careful precision, something which English grammar does not do necessarily require. English sentences are determined most often by their word order: "X did Y to Z." Little care is required to translate that sentence. However, the meaning of a Latin sentence is determined by the word endings, so our hypothetical sentence could be organized any number of ways—"X to Z did Y," or "Did Y X to Z," et cetera—and the meaning would not change; however, it would require great care and discipline on the part of the audience to decipher the sentence's meaning. The careful, disciplined, and analytical mental processes required by Latin study translate well to any academic discipline, and almost any profession.[3] The world is growing shorter on erudite people with these qualities—careful, disciplined, and analytic thinkers—and the decreased emphasis on Latin in the curricula of campuses everywhere is partly to blame. This is what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
We let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.[4]
            The final theoretical justification for learning Latin is that it was the language of the intelligentsia of western civilization for roughly 1,800 years, from Cicero and Virgil to Aquinas and Milton. The vast majority of the western world's literary, historical, and philosophical works written from 300 B.C. to A.D. 1500 were written in Latin.[5] By learning their language we gain a valuable point of contact with our intellectual ancestors. We can better understand their perspective, their thoughts, their feelings, and their wisdom. As Christian Kopff so eloquently put it, "Studying the ancient tongues allows us to hear our ancestors talking and thinking.... These are lines of communication we need to keep open [because] the past is our most important source of creativity."[6] It is almost always better to read a text in its original language; as good as modern translations can be, when reading a translation the reader becomes subservient to the translator's view or interpretation of the writer and the text; when we are able to read the text in its original language, we are slaves to the translator no longer, and are free to interpret and understand the original writer on his or her own ground. With this freedom the student will in turn be free to engage in the great conversations of western civilization with a new perspective, a facet of good education much neglected in modern America. Regarding this importance of this perspective, Kirk wrote:
Being educated [students] will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power, and money, and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look backward to ancestors and forward to posterity. For them education will not terminate on commencement day.[7]
There is one final perspective provided to twenty-first century students of Latin that is in desperate demand: since the modern world has experience such dramatic advances in medicine and technology, modern students tend to have an egocentric view of themselves and their culture. There is a tendency to view the ancients and medievals as superstitious, backward, and ignorant, or at least less savvy and wise than ourselves; however, even the most cursory exposure to Latin quickly shows a student that, while we have experience great leaps in science, medicine, and technology, we perhaps have given up ground elsewhere: grammatical precision, wisdom, and understanding, for example.
            There are also several additional arguments for learning Latin which might be considered more practical than the above arguments. The most convincing of these arguments is that learning any foreign language, Latin in particular, leads to increased mastery over English. As native English language speakers, we can grow lazy in our grammar, syntax, and diction. Learning Latin—or any a foreign language, for that matter—requires that we keep abreast of such grammatical constructions as participles, prepositional phrases, and dependent clauses. But there are reasons to learn Latin over a foreign language du jour. For one, over 50% of the English language has a Latin origin, and as such learning Latin is excellent for developing one's vocabulary.[8] For example, simple knowledge of two Latin adverbs, bene and male—"rightly" or "well," and "badly" or "wickedly," respectively—opens up a long list of English words to the knowledgeable student: benediction and malediction; benevolent and malevolent; benefactor and malefactor, to name only a few. As Charles Williams put it: "Almost imperceptibly [the Latin student] finds his range of expression amplified; his appreciation of delicate shades of thought quickened; his vocabulary expanding; his ability to think more clearly and to give utterance to his thought with propriety and precision vastly augmented."[9] The pragmatic parent or administrator will be interested to know that this training has immediate and tangible results for students on standardized tests: Latin students consistently score 170 points higher on the verbal portion of the SAT over their non-Latin counterparts.[10] On a related note, because Latin is difficult, a student with a Latin background has evidence for prospective academic institutions that he or she can conquer difficult subjects, and therefore has an improved chance of gaining admission. As one college dean put it, "Classical languages on a transcript indicate seriousness of purpose and true devotion to a rigorous program of study.” [11]
            A second practical argument for Latin is that it can be described as the chief cornerstone of language  study, in particular of the languages of the western world. The tendency of the modern parent or educator is to look at Latin as a subject that will fill the file cabinet of the student's mind with useless information; Latin declensions and conjugations, vocabulary and grammar, will only take up valuable space that could be filled with more useful information, like a modern spoken language. There is, however, a terminal flaw in this view: as Sayers said, "Latin is the key to the vocabulary and structure of the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents."[12] Latin is the common ancestor of all the modern Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portugese, et cetera; as such, study of Latin makes these languages more accessible, not less, easier to learn, not harder. As Wilson argued, "A student who learns one language, such as Latin, is not stuck with his shoebox three-quarters full, with no room for Spanish. Rather the students has a mind that has been stretched and exercised in such a way that subsequent learning is much easier, not much harder."[13]
            In summary, advocates of a curriculum that includes Latin have compelling arguments in their favor, arguments that will satisfy even those practical parents and administrators. We must be vigilant and ready to give our defense to everyone who would require it of us, for the benefit of our students and, ultimately, our own civilization.

[1] For a summary of the Bunge and Mackey studies related to the brain as a muscle that can be built or developed, see Po Bronson, "Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?" Newsweek, (Dec. 11 2009), (accessed August 27, 2011). Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 140, calls the brain "a muscle, not a shoebox."
[2] For the advantages of learning and speaking a second language, see Melinda Wenner, "The Neural Advantage of Speaking Two Languages, " Scientific American (January 2010), (accessed on August 27, 2010).
[3] Wilson, p. 140, says it this way: "A good education encourages such attention to detail in all things, but especially in language.... When we learn the importance of intellectual discipline, we can soon relate the value of that discipline to other tasks...."
[4] Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning," (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[5] There are of course several notable exceptions: the New Testament Canon and the Greek ecclesiastical historians, in particular.
[6] E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999). 
[7] Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1978), p. xviii.
[8] The percentage of "over 50%" is found in Wilson, p. 142.
[9] Wilson, pp. 142-43.
[10] Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, "The Latin Advantage," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., (accessed on August 8, 2011).
[11] For a range of college admissions personnel commenting on this subject, see Texas Classical Association, "Why Take Latin?" (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[12] Sayers, (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[13] Wilson, p. 140.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Where Science Went Wrong: God, Truth, and Ricky Gervais

"Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge."  - Ricky Gervais, "Why I'm an Atheist"

Atheism is in vogue. Celebrity comedian Ricky Gervais has taken up the mantle of atheist apologist and advances his worldview every time his face is in front of a camera. He has had at least two articles published in the Wall Street Journal in the past seven months - one at Christmas and one at Easter, interestingly enough - which both present his "reasoned" (his word, not mine) explanation for not believing in God. As a host of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this year, Mr. Gervais ended his closing monologue with the memorable if unspectacular line "Thank you to God for making me an atheist." Mr. Gervais has had a nice tour hitting all the talk shows to deride theists and posture himself as a logical and enlightened atheist.

But what is Mr. Gervais really saying, and is he the enlightened erudite that he pretends to be? Let's first analyze his arguments for his disbelief in God. He uses a lot of space to say very little: "Science seeks the truth.... For better or worse it finds things out.... It bases its conclusions... on hard evidence." What does all this mean? Mr. Gervais is implying that science and theism diverge, but where and why? Mr. Gervais has very little to say here, only some empty platitudes about evolution and "truth, science, and nature." Mr. Gervais would have us accept prima facie - as self-evident and not requiring further argument - that evolution (and science and nature) and theism are mutually exclusive; his view is that the two simply cannot coexist in a coherent and rational system of thought. Mr. Gervais wants us to believe that if one person were to accept both evolution and theism as valid explanations of the world, his eyes would cross, his hair catch on fire, his head would turn 360's on his neck Excorcist-style, and his inner gray matter would burst from his ears.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gervais, this is far from the case. Two of the most prolific thinkers of the twentieth century - both countrymen of Mr. Gervais' - fall into this category: theists who were also evolutionists. It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.[1]

C.S. Lewis, another of Mr. Gervais' countrymen and one of the most profound philosophers and writers of the twentieth century, wrote:

I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true.... I can’t help regarding [advice that I refute Evolution in all my Christian apologetics] as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have.[2]

Lewis, not surprisingly, got it right: evolution with regards to theism is a "false issue," a non-starter. As Lewis and Chesterton show, evolution and theism (particularly Christian theism) are entirely compatible. As this author has argued elsewhere, if all that evolutionists hope for could ever actually be proven true, the net result is only truly  problematic for a literal interpretation of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis. More specifically, it would be terminal for a literal reading of the duration of the events recorded by the author of Genesis; that is, the "days" recorded by the author would not be literally interpreted as a twenty-four hour period, but instead could be understood to refer to some steps or sequences in the generative process. The rest of the creative narrative remains intact.

Science more broadly is a false issue for additional reasons as well. First, as any junior high school student with a natural science textbook can tell you, science is restricted by that which can be empirically tried and tested. Even the most novice scientist should be intimately familiar with the standard by which scientific knowledge is gathered, tested, and corrected: the scientific method. The steps of that method roughly speaking are:

1. State the problem.
2. Form a testable hypothesis.
3. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
4. Collect and analyze data produced by the experiment.
5. Draw conclusions from the analysis.
6. Communicate the results.[3]

To illustrate how the scientific method is supposed to work to arrive at what Mr. Gervais so recklessly calls "facts," let us consider an example. Our hypothetical scientist—let us call him Smee—gets an awful stomach ache after lunch. It doesn't happen every day, but just often enough to make Smee miserable. Smee needs to figure out the cause of the stomach pains and solve it. We have just stated the problem: Smee gets stomach aches after lunch. Smee must now form a hypothesis, but not just any hypothesis will do: it must be testable. He arrives at a hypothesis via observing the evidence: he gets stomach aches, always after lunch, only on occasion; ergo, Smee hypothesizes that something he is eating on occasion for lunch is upsetting his stomach. His next step is to form an experiment to test his hypothesis: he carefully plans and documents a month-long lunch diet where he isolates certain foods to eat on certain days, and he diligently records which days he gets an upset stomach. After the month is up, he collects his diet and his health reports, analyzes them, and finds that his stomach aches only happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he ate peanut butter for lunch. Smee's conclusion then: peanut butter upsets his stomach. He compiles his results and conclusions in a nice journal entry to himself so he can use them again later if he runs into any problems.

Now, imagine for a minute this process—the process, remember, by which science is supposed to arrive at Mr. Gervais' "facts"—applied to the existence of God. Step One: our problem is that we are unsure about whether or not God really exists. Step Two: our hypothesis is that God does not exist. Step Three: we need to design an experiment around our hypothesis, which if you remember is supposed to be testable. We have run into our first problem, and it is staggering. How would we go about testing our hypothesis that God does not exist? We could give God an ultimatum by saying, "God, I'm going to jump off this cliff. If you exist, you can save me from a certain death. If you don't exist, you wont' save me," and jump and see what happens. The problem with this experiment is that God, if He exists, is a sentient being who possesses free will, and He might think us foolish and simply choose not to save us. By way of cutting him off at the pass, one can assume Mr. Gervais might try to insert evolutionary theory as some kind of experiment, but that falls short as well. Here is why: in the corporate world, there is a process known as "reverse engineering" by which one company obtains the finished product of a second company and dismantles it to see how it works. Even if evolution is true, all we have done is to reverse engineer God's creation; that is, we have merely figured out how creation and biological processes work. To assert anything more would be akin to the Android engineer who, upon dismantling a new generation iPhone, decides that, because he was able to figure out his creation, the Apple engineer does not exist. His conclusion simply does not follow from his evidence.

Though he did not necessarily articulate it as such, Mr. Gervais is presumably assuming the position of naturalism: the position that the only things which can be known are those which are arrived at via the scientific method. If this is the case, fine and well, but he must be prepared to surrender a good deal of ideas that he considers "truth," most notably his own atheism. As discussed above, atheism - and theism, mind you - are not positions that can be arrived at by way of the scientific method. As such, Mr. Gervais' own atheism is a matter of faith, just like the believer's theism. The two are in the same boat. The only difference appears to be that the theist is more honest about his position with all his talk about "faith" and "belief," while Mr. Gervais' game is to parade his own faith as something more - "truth, science, and nature." We should not be fooled.

If Mr. Gervais would like to make the point that one cannot use science to prove God's existence, then his point would be well-made; but he must also concede that one cannot use science to disprove God's existence, which by my lights is precisely what he purports to do. The problem for Mr. Gervais and other psuedo-scientists like him is that the question of God's existence does not belong to the province of science. It cannot be tested or observed. It cannot be put in a beaker and heated, nor can it be dissolved in a solution and analyzed. The question of God's existence is not a scientific question, it is a philosophical question, and in that realm Mr. Gervais is out of his league. While he is certainly welcome to his opinion, and he is to be admired for his willingness to step into the ring and taking a few swings, he would be well-advised to stick to what he knows. For all his comic genius, Mr. Gervais is a very poor scientist, and an even worse philosopher.

Oh, and I thank God for making me a believer.

[1] G.K. Chestergon, Orthodoxy (Hollywood, FL 2010), p. 29.
[2] Gary Ferngren, et al. "C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960", In a reference which immediately calls to mind  Gervais' polemics, Lewis would later write to Acworth, "‘What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders."
[3] These steps were taken from a poster on the wall in a junior high life science classroom.