Christian Apologetics and the Imagination

The part of the mind known as the imagination—the ability to form mental images—is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given super-power, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldviews, and is the way into our hearts.

The imagination can also be the way into the hearts of unbelievers. Many people in today’s culture, trapped in their narrow materialistic worldviews, “cannot imagine” any kind of spiritual reality. They perceive only dimly
the difference between good and evil, and while they can respond to extreme cases of the two (they are human, after all), they have difficulty imagining themselves as sinners. And God, Christ, Hell, Heaven, Redemption are outside of their imaginative frames of reference.

But it isn’t just that they have trouble imagining spiritual reality, they have trouble imagining physical reality. Their world consists of material objects, which they are glad to use for their pleasure; but the objective universe has no meaning for them. They think science has not only explained the natural order but has explained it away. There is no mystery or wonder in the external world, only dead matter. It can be manipulated in various ways, but any kind of meaning must come from within the self. While there might be objective facts, there is no objective truth. They cannot imagine a creation, much less a Creator.

One symptom of this tragic blindness is that people today are strangely impervious to reason. Rational arguments were important in the modernist era, which claimed the Enlightenment mantle of being the “Age of Reason.” But postmodernists often seem little affected by logic, chains of reasoning, or objective evidence.

Convincing people of the  thus poses new challenges today. Evangelists must try to reach people who have little conception of what the evangelists are talking about. Apologists can make superb arguments for the truth of Christianity that nevertheless fail to penetrate the mindset of their audiences. To be sure, many people are still coming to faith, proving that the Holy Spirit and not our merely human efforts is the One who brings people to Christ. And yet Christians must continue to speak about the objective truth of what we believe, objectivity being an important part of our worldview, both to emphasize to non-believers that the message of Christ is not just another construction of the self and to teach new believers how to think in objective terms. But one way to connect with postmodernists, to open their minds to a much larger worldview, is to reach their imaginations.

What C. S. Lewis did

C. S. Lewis is surely the best known and most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century. He showed that there is a rational case for Christianity. As such, he was addressing the modernist mind. And yet that was not all he was doing. Consider the climax of his argument about Christ in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.1

Here is a logical argument, establishing three possibilities and asserting which one is more plausible. But it is also addressing the imagination. When we read this argument, we are also picturing a lunatic, a devil, and even a poached egg. We also picture in our minds the responses to Him: shut Him up, spit at Him, kill Him, fall at His feet, call Him Lord and God.

Lewis wrote many books that make the rational case for Christianity: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, God in the Dock, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. His apologetic works are not abstract tomes, full of intellectual content but tedious to read. They are absorbing and hard to put down. His reasoning, full of vivid illustrations and analogies, is compelling, even exciting. This is because Lewis is stimulating not only his readers’ intellects but also their imaginations. Lewis was also the author of fantasy novels: The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces. At a time when literary modernism favored works of grim realism, Lewis was writing in the genre of untrammeled imagination. But these works of the creative imagination, written to send their readers’ imagination soaring, also were works of Christian apologetics, playing a role, just like his rational arguments, in bringing countless readers to faith.

An important clue to Lewis’s life work can be found in the subtitle of the first book that he wrote after he became a Christian: The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. His is an apologetic not only for Christianity but also for reason and romanticism. But aren’t reason and romanticism opposed to each other? How can he defend both logic and emotion, realism and fantasy? And in what sense are both opposites under attack?

This may be one of Lewis’s greatest insights. The modernists, in the name of reason, rejected romanticism. Today’s postmodernists, in their subjectivity, reject reason. But even as early as 1933 when Lewis published Pilgrim’s Regress, both worldviews were taking shape and starting to contend with each other. The narrow road that the Pilgrim must follow runs between two extremes. On one side are barren, icy cliffs, symbolizing the cold, hard facts of rationalism. On the other side are hot, muddy swamps, symbolizing the sensuality and inwardness of romanticism. But when the Pilgrim finds Christianity, a true reason and a true romanticism are restored to him.

Today, both objectivity and subjectivity are impoverished. Both are lifeless. Having no room for each other, they leave human beings trapped in a partial, incomplete state, with the different facets of their minds and personalities in conflict with each other. In the words of Lewis’s rival and fellow convert T. S. Eliot, who put forward a similar diagnosis, human beings today are plagued with a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which thinking and feeling go in different directions.2 Eliot found the unified sensibility he craved in 17th century Christian poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, and then he himself embraced the Christian faith and experienced the wholeness that it brings.

Lewis’s own coming to Christ had its start in his imagination. What he presents in an allegorical fantasy in Pilgrim’s Regress and more straightforwardly in his autobiographical memoir Surprised by Joy is his account of various experiences of ineffable longing. These were moments of transcendence, glimpses of something beyond this life, which he felt as a mingling of joy and an almost painful yearning. As he recounts in Surprised by Joy, different things would bring on these feelings, but they were almost always works of the imagination: Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin; a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; the mere title of William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End. A milestone in his spiritual pilgrimage was his discovery of Phantases by the Scottish clergyman George McDonald, one of the great masters of Christian fantasy. When he read it, Lewis said, “My imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”3 Later, in a conversation about myth with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, he realized that what he loved in myth—its aching beauties, its slain gods, its deaths and resurrections–pointed to Christ, in whom myth became fact.4

Imagination led C. S. Lewis to Christ, and he led others to Christ by awakening their imaginations.5

Freeing Prisoners

Lewis’s good friend and the man who brought him to Christ was J. R. R. Tolkien, an even greater writer of fantasies. In replying to the charge that fantasy is mere “escapism,” Tolkien asked, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”6

This is exactly the plight of the lost. They are prisoners of the sin that enslaves them, to be sure (John 8:34). They are also imprisoned in their narrow, confining, claustrophobic worldviews. That prison may be the materialism that insists that the physical world is all there is. Or it may be the even smaller and darker enclosure that is the self.

Tolkien wants to help the captive “get out” of his prison so that he can “go home.” Imagining something bigger and better than the constricting confines of the prison blows out its walls. Imagination can also awaken a yearning for one’s true home.7

To be sure, imagination can send an escaped prisoner in all kinds of directions, including to new imagination-created prisons. Christians must continue to insist on reason, evidence, and objective truth. What must be done is to re-associate truth and the imagination.

“Part of our problem in presenting the Faith,” observes Alison Milbank, “is that our world deadens desire, and many people do not know that they are missing anything.”8 “For me,” she says, “the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening this desire in others.”9 Helping people realize that they are missing something and awakening the desire for eternal life, for God, are critical for both apologetics and evangelism.

This is a task for the imagination, but not at the expense of reason. But reason itself needs to be imaginatively rehabilitated. Again, Dr. Milbank suggests how: Reason does need rescuing and we can do so by recasting the limit to understanding from a negation to an opening out to mystery. As Fr. Giussani argues, reason discovers mystery: ‘the summit of reason’s conquest may reveal itself as a foothill’ but this perception is itself a positive discovery that there is more: ‘the existence of something incommensurable in relation to [Reason] itself. And it is imagination that helps reason to recognize the mystery as mystery. So let us use every imaginative tool at our disposal to awaken the religious sense, and then use reason to explain the difference this viewpoint makes to our experience of the whole of reality, which is restored to us, in all its fullness.10

A good example of how this apologetics of the imagination has worked in practice can be seen in this account from British journalist Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who describes how, as an atheist, she was converted to Christianity through the poetry of George Herbert. (I have never understood why Herbert is so little known by evangelicals today. The Word of God is part of the texture of his verse, his major theme is the Gospel, and few have written so profoundly of their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Also, even secular scholars agree on his stature as one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language in his formal and aesthetic mastery.)11

Ms. Threlfall-Holmes recalls first coming upon Herbert as a teen-ager in school. “By the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.”12 She says that she had assumed religion was for the weak-minded. “But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”13 Notice that she is responding not simply to Herbert’s imagination but also to his intelligence. And yet, her own intelligence needed something more.

She responds to the honest struggles that Herbert records. She says of his poems that “many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet’s own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.”14 She begins to see that there is more to Christianity than she realized.

For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. . . .It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.15

Our churches are full of young people like teenage Miranda—smart, sophisticated in their own way, and eager to leave their parents’ households–and we agonize how to reach and keep them. They need teaching, but simply throwing abstract doctrinal ideas at them may not be enough. The teaching needs to appeal to their intelligence. But Christianity is not merely about ideas.
It is about mighty realities, as concrete as rough-hewn wood stained by blood. And Christianity is not about bourgeois complacency, but it addresses failures, suffering, and personal struggles. Teaching the faith to young people—or, for that matter, to the unchurched or to anyone today—should involve awakening them to “the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger.”

The point is not just that we need more poets and other artists like George Herbert, though we do. We do need more apologists like C. S. Lewis who can reach both the intellect and the imaginations of people today, who are, in many ways, different than those Lewis addressed in his day. And we do need more writers like J. R. R. Tolkien who, even though they do not directly address religious issues, can expand the imaginations of their readers and fill them with desire for realities beyond the world.

But we also need preachers who can move their hearers to a deeper response. We need people who can witness to their friends so that the message of the Gospel is not easily dismissed but sinks in deeply. To be sure, the Word of God creates faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, but God’s Word itself is much more than abstract ideas. It certainly teaches inerrant propositional truths, and it does so by means of historical narratives, parables, poetry, and figurative language—all of which address the imagination in the course of reaching the heart. Meanwhile, all Christians—especially as they face the dehumanizing, reductionistic, and materialistic mentality of our current times—need to love God with all of their minds, which would include their imaginations.

Fine Arts and the Liberal Arts

The three “absolutes,” according to classical thought, are the true, the good, and the beautiful. Postmodernists say “there are no absolutes,” insisting that truth, goodness, and beauty are all relative. Christians and cultural conservatives in general tend to disagree when it comes to the objective, transcendent reality of truth and moral principles, but they often sound just as postmodern when it comes to beauty. They say of aesthetic judgments what postmodernists say of truth claims and moral principles, that they are nothing more than subjective preferences, that they are just personal choices, that one position is just as valid as another, and that they don’t really matter anyway.

The whole category of “beauty” seems to be slipping away, to our great impoverishment. Not that the visual arts are in decline. Neil Postman warns that our culture is becoming more and more visually-oriented at the expense of language itself. Our major cultural artifacts are now movies, videos, online imagery, and product design. Classical educators must remain champions of the book, but teaching about the fine arts can help students navigate the new visual landscape. More importantly, it can help them develop aesthetic standards so that they can tell the difference between what is beautiful and meaningful and what is ugly and trivial. Having an education in the fine arts can also help students grow in their tastes as they learn how to take pleasure in what is objectively worthy.

The fine, the useful, and the liberal arts

Classical education is built around the “liberal arts,” which many people assume incorrectly to be about “artsy” things as opposed to what is “scientific” or “practical.” But the word “art,” in the classical sense, simply means “skill,” referring to the human capacity to make and do things. The liberal arts are the skills necessary for the formation of a free human being (the Latin word for freedom, liber, giving us both liberal and liberty).

Then there are the useful arts, the skills needed for practical living and for contributing to the economy. Thus we have the art of farming and the art of medicine. Today we would consider being able to drive a car or to be proficient on a computer as useful arts.
The fine arts are skills exercised for their own sake, making something sheerly for its meaning and its beauty. “Fine” refers to the purity of its motive. When you scribble a picture in your notebook, you are not trying to do anything useful. You do it for your own pleasure because you can. A good artist can draw a picture to hang on a wall, allowing others to enjoy it. I myself would classify sports as a “fine art,” since running and throwing and playing games are being performed for their own sake—as opposed to performing these activities in a useful art, such as hunting or warfare—but more usually today the term is used to refer to the purely aesthetic creations of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and the like).

To be sure, the liberal, the useful, and the fine arts overlap. The visual arts as employed by a graphic designer or a filmmaker can have a commercially useful end. A liberal arts education, in teaching skills such as reading and logic and arithmetic, can be quite useful. Music is an aesthetic creation with all the qualities of the fine arts, though it is also categorized as one of the seven liberal arts. Drawing used to be taught as part of the liberal art of geometry. My thesis here is that the fine arts should be incorporated into a liberal arts education because they too are helpful in the formation of a free human being.

Classical art

The fine arts in Western civilization—we will focus on the visual arts, but this also applies to literature, music, and other aesthetic creations—have tended to vacillate between two styles and approaches: the classical, which is based on imitation of an objective order, and the romantic, which is based on creation and human subjectivity.

Artists working in the classical style try to capture the appearance of a natural scene, a human face, or a universal truth. Classical artists will arrange colors and shapes into more or less realistic images, arraying them according to time-honored principles of composition and design.

Artists working in the romantic style are trying to create something that has never existed before. They are typically expressing themselves, that is, trying to find an external form for their subjective emotions, internal struggles, or personal preoccupations.

Classical education, one might think, would emphasize the classical approach to art. But it is not so simple. In reality, each work of art in any style will typically contain elements of both. A very realistic painting will still be marked with the artist’s creativity.
A very expressionistic painting will still draw on the objective qualities of color, light, and composition. Some abstract art comes from the artist’s own inner impulses, but other abstract art follows classical aesthetics in its concern with geometric shapes, experiments with color, and aesthetic designs.

Also, classical Christian educators must remember that creation is a distinctly Christian concept. Pagan civilizations, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, had no conception of creation ex nihilo (from nothing). Even in their so-called creation myths, the universe is made out of some kind of pre-existing matter. That pagan art is based on imitating the natural order comes, at least in part, from pagan nature-worship and idolatry. This is why the Ten Commandments warn against the religious use of “graven images,” including “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). The ancient Hebrews, like today’s Muslims, would not make representative art. Instead, they cultivated non-representative art—swirling lines, geometric shapes, intricate colors, and other abstract forms (think of the complex designs on Persian carpets). Not that the Bible absolutely forbids representational art—the Temple was full of it, by God’s command—but later Christians would see all of the arts as a faint shadow of God’s creativity carried out by human beings made in His image. Early Christians rejected the truth of the pagan myths, but preserved them as delightful and instructive stories, thereby inventing the concept of fiction. Medieval story-tellers cultivated the genre of fantasy—known as “romances”—and their visual artists illuminated manuscripts with intricate abstract designs.

So Christians should not be immediately dismissive of non-representational or Romantic art. One could argue, though, that in our highly-subjective, self- oriented culture, it is the classical approach to art that is getting short shrift today and needs to be transmitted lest it disappear. Also, the elements of classical art have served as the foundation even for the best experimental, expressive art.

So classical schools should teach classical art. Just as they teach “the great books,” they can teach “the great paintings.” In doing so, they will study the whole array of artistic styles and how they demonstrate in different combinations both imitation and creativity.

Art and Classical Pedagogy

The way art is typically taught in today’s progressive schools is to give young people the opportunity to make their own art. Kindergartners smear paper with finger paints for their parents to put up on the refrigerator; high schoolers cut out pictures from magazines to make collages to express how they feel. The romantic approach to art with its creativity and focus on the artist’s self- expression is the only kind of art even considered.

A liberal arts approach to art education is not concerned with turning out professional artists—there are specialized vocational schools for that, which can come later for students with that calling—but with the universal human appropriation of beauty. We don’t ask young people to write novels before they learn to read them. Not everyone has artistic talents, but everyone can learn to enjoy and learn from a work of art.

A liberal arts approach will not take art simply as an isolated, highly specialized field. Rather, it will show the connection of the visual arts to other fields—history, literature, philosophy, theology, and to other art forms such as music and architecture—as well as to the human condition that transcends time and place.

John Ruskin, for example, said that the teaching of drawing is the best way to teach morality. The kind of realistic drawing that he had in mind requires students to think outside themselves, to attend to the objective universe, thereby subordinating themselves to the real world. Both art and morality require such a mindset.

Classical pedagogy revolves around the trivium— the three liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric— which applies well to the teaching of the fine arts, not just as a developmental model but as a conceptual guide for teaching.

There is a grammar of the visual arts, the basic facts, information, and concepts that make up the elements of a work of art. Students would learn the color wheel, how all colors are combinations of the four primary colors. They would learn about shapes and forms, materials and techniques, the laws of perspective, and different composition strategies. They would learn about the various genres of art—landscapes, portraits, still lifes, narrative paintings, abstraction, etc. Eventually, they would learn to recognize different artistic styles and how to recognize the work of a particular artist. They would gain a vocabulary with which they can talk about art and reflect on it.

The logic of art would involve learning how to understand a work of art. Why is this work significant? What does it mean? How does it mean?

This is more than simply identifying the world view that lies behind the painting. That can be part of understanding a work of art, but often Christian approaches to art neglect the artfulness of the work. Instead, they use art as a prop to talk about worldview issues. The worldview of the artist and the times may be part of understanding the “logic” of the work of art, but a study of the art itself must involve understanding the artistic issues as well. What does the artist do to express his worldview so powerfully? Why is this painting so treasured after so many worldviews have come and gone? What makes this painting so great?

The logic phase of learning about art would study important works of art and important artists.
It would arrive at aesthetic standards and practice evaluating works of art. In classical pedagogy, logic is taught by “dialectic”—that is, by talking about the works of art, discussing them, with the teacher asking questions that lead students into their own discoveries and insights.

The rhetoric phase involves students creatively applying what they have learned in their own projects and compositions, which can be done with art as well as with language. Here students
do create art of their own—drawing, painting, filmmaking—but instead of the progressive mode of starting and ending with the making of art with little attention to learning about the arts, classical pedagogy will encourage creativity working from the foundation of aesthetic knowledge and understanding.

The result will be art students who know what they are doing. They will not all have artistic talents that will turn them into artists. But they will know enough about an art form, including having tried to do it themselves, that they will appreciate seeing it performed well. They will constitute what artists need and what the arts themselves need in order to thrive, an informed audience. And the students themselves will, as they grow up, become the beneficiaries of beauty, as it is connected to the other absolutes of truth and goodness.

Learning to Like What is Good

I don’t like Jane Austen, but I do like those Twilight novels about vampires in love.” “I don’t like Bach. He’s boring! I like rap music a lot better.” “I really liked that movie, especially the part when the slasher cut off the girl’s head with a chainsaw.” Hearing students talk like that makes teachers cringe and stirs thoughts of going into another line of work. How can they be so impervious to what is true and good and beautiful? How can they take such pleasure in absolute dreck? And how can they be so arrogant and so shallow and so narrow-minded as to judge the whole world according to the wholly subjective standard of whether they “like” something or not?

The problem goes beyond the education of children. In our postmodern climate, objective considerations hold less sway than subjective considerations. As a result, “likes” and “dislikes” take the place of reason (so much for truth), moral obedience (so much for goodness), and aesthetic reflection (so much for beauty). We say, “I really like that church,” rather than, “I believe what that church teaches.” “I got a divorce and abandoned my family because I no longer loved my spouse and I fell in love with someone else.” “I enjoy just vegging out in front of the TV, so leave me alone.”

Today we are surely more pleasure-centered than we should be. The answer, though, is not to deny pleasure altogether. Aristotle said that virtue in regards to pleasure, along with other feelings, involves learning “to feel these emotions at the right times, for the right objects, towards the right persons, for the right motives, and in the right manner.”1

That is to say, we must cultivate our affections. It is certainly good to have affection for things. “Liking” is a form of “loving.” The problem for us fallen creatures is that our affections and virtually all of our other emotions are disordered. We need to learn how to order them rightly. That is, we need to come to the point of “liking” (subjectively) what is “good” (objectively).

Cultivating the affections has always been a key goal of classical education and Christian discipleship. An education in the liberal arts is designed to “form” a free human being. This involves orienting the child’s affections to what is true, good, and beautiful. This goes beyond the knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty. The child also must learn to love them.

The Apostle Paul says that a leader in the church should be “a lover of what is good” (Titus 1:8;NKJV). This also entails feeling revulsion for things that are not good. “Abhor what is evil,” says the Apostle to all Christians; “Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9;NKJV). This has to do with developing a moral sensibility, but Paul also goes beyond that:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8; ESV)

These are not the “whatevers” of the bored, apathetic student. These “whatevers” open up the Christian to “excellence” of every kind, wherever it may be found.

So how can the affections be rightly ordered? Not everyone takes pleasure in truth, honor, justice, purity, or loveliness. Others may commend something and recognize its worthiness, but how can we teach others—not to mention ourselves—to join in the praise?

Learning to love what is lovely is the work of a lifetime, but schools can play a critical role. Most helpful, in my experience, in cultivating this growth are the arts in general and literature in particular.

It is impossible to browbeat someone into loving something, and frontal attacks on what someone already loves simply provokes defensiveness and resistance. My own practice is to build on what the person already “likes” as part of my strategy to direct the affection to a more worthy object and to deepen the shallow affection into love.

“You don’t like Shakespeare?” I might say. “Do you understand him?”

“Well, no.”

“So you really don’t know whether you like him or not.” Knowing that my students “like” sports, I will help them see that in order to enjoy football, they need to understand the game, and that the more they understand it—its rules and strategies, its different plays and the techniques necessary to execute them well—the more they enjoy it. The same is true for literature, music, or any of the arts. The more you know about them—the rules and conventions of art form, the strategies and techniques of the artist—the more you will find to enjoy.

I will explain that some books you can just enjoy on your own without any help. You already understand the Twilight vampire novels, so there is no need to study them. Other books, though, are more challenging. You need help with them. But when you do understand them, you will find that there is even more to like than in the easy books.

I will go off on tangents like this: “Everybody likes fast food. Grease, salt, and sugar taste good. But compare a McDonald’s Meal Deal to your mother’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Notice the turkey, the dressing,
the cranberry sauce, the pumpkin pie, and all the rest do play off those basic tastes. But there are so many other tastes going on at the same time: not just salt but sage and rosemary; fruit confections that are simultaneously sweet and tart; multiple levels of flavor; symphonies of different textures that play in your mouth.

“Classical music is like that, with lots of melodies and rhythms and layers of sound going on at the same time. And Shakespeare is like that, with every character having a story, with themes and ideas and images woven together in many different configurations, and yet they come together into a whole.”

I am trying to teach my students how to appreciate complexity and the aesthetic principle of unity in variety.

I also try to teach them about literature as a whole, including the simple literature they already like. This will include helping them see when literature violates its own principles.

“Every story, whether in a book or a movie or a TV show, has to have some kind of conflict.” They give me examples. The most common, of course, will be between good guys and bad guys slugging it out.

“How can you tell who is good and who is bad?” Bad guys are usually ugly. “Is that how it is in real life?” No. “So the ugliness is symbolic. The story uses superficial appearances to create a meaning and an effect, to make evil unattractive.” Then I will point out how literature today often does the reverse, making evil attractive and making goodness repellent. Classic comedy ridicules vice; modern comedy often ridicules virtue. This can lead into discussions of how storytellers, including filmmakers, present what happens through the point of view of different characters, and how artists can manipulate readers’ responses.

I then show how some of the greatest works show human beings in their complexity. Shakespeare’s “good guys,” like Hamlet or Lear, may have a streak of badness inside, a tragic flaw; and his “bad guys,” like Macbeth or Claudius, may well have some admirable qualities. They are complex and conflicted, like us. The most profound conflicts are those that take place within the human heart. What I am doing through all of this is teaching my students how to critique works of art, both aesthetically and morally.

I also try to make them see the distinction between the statement “I like this,” and “this is good.” That you like it tells us something about yourself. That this is good tells us something about the work. We can like something for many different reasons—because something in a story reminds us of someone we know or conjures up some fantasy that we have had or an emotion that strikes a chord with us. And, yes, liking varies from one person to another. To say a work is “good,” though, means that it was made with skill, that it fulfills its purpose, that it has qualities that are worthwhile, etc., etc.

I make my students realize that we can like something that is not good. Fast food is not “good for us” in the way that mom’s home-cooked meal will be. We can get a kick out of an inept movie like Plan Nine from Outer Space. Much popular art, I will show them, cares only about whether people “like it.” The success of a television show depends exclusively on ratings; movies have to score a big box office; pop music producers care only about selling records. The artistic merit of the work is secondary and sometimes gets in the way—as the artists themselves are always complaining!

One way to make large groups of people “like” a movie or other work and so to spend money on it is to put in sex, crude violence, and other appeals to our vices.

That is much easier than creating a work of art that is actually “good.” Work that is “good” may well deal with sex, violence, and vice—Shakespeare certainly does—but the good work will typically do so in a way that does not provoke the “sin in the heart” that Scripture warns us against. Rather, it sheds light into these darker regions of the human heart, often helping us realize why they are so twisted and redirecting our affections to what is good, not just artistically but morally and spiritually.

A Hollywood sex comedy and the King Arthur saga both deal with adultery. The Hollywood version may make the viewer want to commit adultery. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere shows how their adultery— for all of its passionate romantic love—destroyed their families, friends, and their civilization itself. No one would want to commit adultery after that, and the characters themselves, standing as virtually the sole survivors in the rubble of Camelot with now no obstacles to their love, respond by repenting of their sins and entering the cloister.

What I want to do with my students is to help them grow in their tastes. Yes, tastes differ, but that is not a reason to shut down a conversation about aesthetics. Developing good taste can be defined as learning to take (subjective) pleasure in what is (objectively) good. So helping students—and adults for that matter—grow in their tastes is an important educational purpose.

I am not so naïve as to assume that aesthetic taste always translates into moral or spiritual growth.

Education itself, even classical liberal arts education, has its limits in how well it can create virtue. Plato was surely wrong when he taught that to know the good is always to do the good. One of Socrates’ best students was Alcibiades, who betrayed Athens first to Sparta and then to the Persians. Students need the grace of God and the disciplines of the Christian life to order their affections in the fullest sense.

But education has its part to play. And educators—whether teachers or parents or pastors—must remember to cultivate not just external knowledge but also the inner life. That is the realm of emotions, the will, and the imagination. Literature, as well as the other arts, engages all of these and can become the occasion to meditate upon and to talk about the whole spectrum of life.

We classical educators often speak of our subject matter in terms of the true, the good, and the beautiful. They all have to do with love. Love of truth is what motivates the quest for knowledge. Love for others
is at the essence of moral goodness. Aesthetic delight is love for the object. In a sense, then, cultivating the affections—that is, cultivating love—is for education both the motivation and the end.