Thursday, November 22, 2007

Being Literate, Becoming Literate

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.--Ecclesiastes 12:9-12.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.--C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.



What does it mean to be literate? How many today can attain unto it? For how many is it simply too late, a lost cause?

To be literate means to seek knowledge and wisdom through literature, to live a certain kind of life. A literate person experiences life through the knowledge gained through reading great--and some not-so-great--works; she carries the works within and summons them (consciously or unconsciously) for the thoughts and emotions requisite for any given situation. Being literate expands the vocabulary, the semantics, and the syntax of the soul, allowing more of reality to be appropriated in more ways. It helps one see what is tragic, what is comic, and what is trivial.

This knowledge establishes a friendship with the best that humans have written; it lifts one out of the cave of individual stupor (self-stultification and self-stupefaction) by exposing the soul to fresher air, higher thoughts, deeper feelings. It opens the pores.

For many of the image bearers of God in our day being literate is neither a goal nor a possibility. They have been rendered functionally autistic through the diversions of digital media, hyper hedonism, and pseudo-education that is more concerned with indoctrination than with the invocation of the muse, whose presence can transport us to unexplored lands of truth, even to eternity.

The National Endowment for the Arts laments (again) that reading is in steep decline. How can I provoke in my students the love of learning, the thrill of discovery, the discipline of finding, testing, and applying ideas? How can I commend reading over watching or playing? I can attempt to be a model of a literate man--a very imperfect one, who got a late start, and who chronically feels his ignorance. I can pray for them to awaken, to begin to distain the cave they call a home.

8 comments:

Tom said...

This reminds me of the answer a friend of mine used to give people when she was asked what she would *do* with her M.A. in English. Her answer? Everytime she read a newspaper, wrote a letter to a friend, thought about the world and her place in it, or had a good conversation over dinner and drinks she was putting her degree to use. Whatever could be more useful for life than the background afforded the literate mind?

Kyl said...

I wrote a version of this on the apollos.ws webpage:

Somehow I developed a fascination with asking a particular question: What is the correct view (on any topic)? Not what do I wish was the correct view. Not what does the media think is the correct view. But what is the correct view. I try to read the very best arguments that the other side has, but that makes things even more interesting because it can allow one to get even closer to the correct view. When I started to apply this fascination with being honest to apologetic questions, things became even more interesting. It is like a discovery. One doesn’t know (on various topics) what one is going to find. Maybe that is one of the reasons it can be incredibly interesting. I’ll probably have this powerful fascination in me for all of my life. I don’t know if this (honesty) has had the most impact on my life, but it has had a major, major influence on it. I’m trying to read the very best arguments on both sides of a view. It seems (for me) to be a great way to find the right view on a topic.


In the book Habits of the Mind Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling James W. Sire offers an initial definition of what an intellectual is. Sire writes, “An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.

A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.”

Does anybody have comments on Sire’s definition?

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

Excellent!

Robert Velarde said...

Great post. In a multimedia age have films and television programs become the new "literature"?

Your post reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis from his book An Experiment in Criticism:

"But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

Kyle said...

While I love reading whatever I can get my hands on and love new challenges and therefore agree with your comments, I was wondering what you make of the end of your quote: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body."
The first verses seem to say that reading and studying are good, but that last sentence seems to be more cynical on the topic, or at least I always assumed it was a warning against reading too much.

Doug Groothuis said...

Study has a cost, but it is worth it. Discipline your mind and body to do it!

+pt said...

Professor Groothuis, when I started attending your class, I bought myself a little notebook, to write down even just a few sentences of what I have read, learned or discovered about God & Truth everyday. It's a great joy to be on this discovery journey and we are created in His image to do so.
Thank you, professor.

Brandon Dahm said...

Great post, thanks.