Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

In a World With No Classics

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

In The Western Canon; The Books and School of the Age (1994), Yale literary critic Harold Bloom examines the Western literary tradition by concentrating on the works of twenty-six authors central to the Canon. The “Canon” to Bloom includes the most important classical works in western civilization. This Canon, as it were, establishes a literary tradition. A central component of that tradition is the Homeric Epics, including the Odyssey.  The importance of the Odyssey to the western canon is without dispute.  The problem is, as Bloom laments in his first chapter “An Elegy for the Canon,” no one reads the classics! Or rather, people read any old thing they want and they call it “great literature.” “The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits . . . by its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders.” (Bloom, “An Elegy for the Canon,”)

What does it mean to live in a society and culture that does not read the classics?  It means we have no way to talk to one another.  We no longer have common metaphors and motifs from which to share consensus.  We wonder from one existential moment to another.  Bloom, and I, dread that eventuality.  It is up to you, young people, to be such competent, but Godly writers, that society cannot ignore and then, you will resurrect the old and add to the expanding canon.

My own “classical” list can be found at my website,

Click on “Free Downloads” and then “Classical Reading Lists: Creation to Present.”

What are my top 10 choices:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. Confessions, Augustine
  4. Sound and Fury, Faulkner
  5. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
  6. War and Peace, Tolstoy
  7. Faust, Goethe
  8. Heart of Darkness, Conrad
  9. Macbeth, Shakespeare
  10. The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot

The Study of History

Monday, January 14th, 2013

The times in which we live require a new look at history.  History, of course, never changes.  But we do.  Each generation looks rewrites history, so to speak, in light of its present circumstances. For instance, I bet American history books would have a far different perspective on radical Islam pre-Sept. 11, 2001 than history books written post-September 11, 2001!

The writing of history is the selection of information and the synthesis of this information into a narrative that will stand the critical eye of time. History, though, is never static. One never creates the definitive theory of a historical event.

History invites each generation to reexamine its own story and to reinterpret past events in light of present circumstances.

The creation of this story is more difficult than it seems. From the beginning the historian is forced to decide what sort of human motivation matters most: Economic? Political? Religious? Social?

For instance, what causes the American Revolution?

The historian Bernard Bailyn argues that ideology or the history of thought caused the American Revolution. No, the historian Oscar Handlin argues, the Revolution was caused by social upheaval (i.e., the dislocation of groups and classes of people). Sydney Ahlstrom argues that religion was an important cause of the American Revolution. And so forth.

We must look at several theories of history, primary source material, and then decide for themselves what really happened.

Students must know and accept that the past is constantly changing according to new scholarship discoveries. Therefore, as new sources are discovered, and old ones reexamined, students understand that theories of history may change. My history books—American, World,  British, Middle School Epoch I, II, III Histories force students to commit themselves to the task of examining these theories, primary source material, and ultimately to form their own theories of history. “Every true history is contemporary history,” historians Gerald Grob and George Billias write. My students make the theories of historical events personal and contemporary.

While I know that my students can never be completely neutral about history, scholarly historical inquiry demands that they implement the following principles:

  1. Historians must evaluate the veracity of sources. There must be a hierarchy of historical sources. Primary source material, for instance, usually is the best source of information.
  2. Historians must be committed to telling both sides of the historical story. They may choose to lobby for one view over the other, but they must fairly examine all theories.
  3. Historians must avoid stereotypes and archetypes. They must overcome personal prejudices and dispassionately view history in ruthlessly objective terms.
  4. Historians must be committed to the truth no matter where their scholarship leads them. At times historians will discover unflattering information about their nation/state.
  5. Finally, historians understand that real, abiding, and eternal history ultimately is made only by people who obey God at all costs.


Friday, August 14th, 2009

What would the world have been like if John Milton had been taught format writing? Would he have pushed convention enough to write Paradise Lost? C. S. Lewis’ Nardia Chronicles was innovative—not regurgitation of old forms. Remember too thatt most of the apologetic argument of the last century was generated by literary critics, not theologians. Could we be putting apologetics in jeopardy by teaching format writing?

What price are we willing to pay for quick and easy writing progress? What are we willing to lose to gain formula writing? Would w e allow someone who could not play the piano teach our children how to play Mozart? Would we hire a math teacher to teach our children calculus who only knows arithmetic functions? Are all major curricula companies wrong? Not one of them advocates formt writing.

Home schoolers, format writing (or what I call sophism or format rhetoric) is the antithesis of what we stand. We have instituted a meritocracy; format writing is the very essence of mediocrity. It advances convention, standardization, sterility. There is no life in format writing. There is no truth in sophism/format writing. It is high treason to a theistic evangelical advancing the content of the Gospel. It is anathema to the Christian apologist gropping for fresh metaphors to share Gospel truth with an unsaved world. Its seeds of superficiality grow forests of ho hum pedictability.

Are we sacrificing the next J. R. R. Tolkein or T. S. Eliot on the altar of convenience and of quantification? Sure, format writing is easy to learn. Easier to teach. But do you think Flannery O’Connor was taught to write through format writing? Do you really want to produce a generation that begins all essays with a ubiquitous generalization about reality followed by 3-5 examples ending with a trite summary?

Let us be frank. In these post-Christian, post-modern times, we abandon Christian rhetoric at our great peril. If we embrace format writing, we embrace mediocrity, superficiality, and conformity. We assissinate metaphorical faith. We doom ourselves and our world to live in culture and in reality paradigms that are old and facile. The creative edge of home education may very well die on the sword of convenience. Think and pray about it.


Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Format writing has become popular in the last 5-10 years among some home educators. However, it has not been embraced by many serious Christian or secular educators. In fact, I have never heard of an orthodox day school, of any size, that has exclusively implemented format writing. In point of fact, some of us home school educators reject format writing too. Why?

The Argument: Aristotle, in his Rhetoric argues that communication, or writing and rhetoric, concerns the character (ethos) of the speaker, the emotional state (pathos) of the listener, and the argument (logos) itself. In fact, the success of the writing enterprise depends on the emotional disposition of the audience. To Aristotle this is the topoi or topic written for an audience. To ignore the audience, removes the very heart of the writing piece. Format writing invites the writer to sacrifice ethos, pathos, and logos on the altar of convenience.

Another casualty of format writing is creativity. Creativity is discouraged—afterall, the wriiter only has to implement certain neutral skills that are completely voic of context, purpose, and audience. There is no encouragement to build on past strategies; no need to consider new audiences. One merely implements a form for each new literary challenge. One size fits all!

I have been a part of the home school movement for 23 years and I must tell you that creative thinking and problem solving is at the heart of our movement. We neglect its development, practice, and implementation at our own, and our world’s peril. I will explain this more later.

Educators avoid format writing for one very good reason: it does not work. In the short run young writers produce all sorts of stock outcomes. But to what end? The purpose of great writing is to influence an audience, to communicate content, to persuade an audience to embrace truth. If the writer knows no or very little content this will be reflected in his writing. This is the reason great writers are great readers—classical reading is at the heart of great writting. One reads the masters, discovers writing strategies, and pushes further.

As a result SAT graders (including myself) are warned to score format writing SAT I essays lower. Why? Because format writing is facile and predictable. It devoid of audience, content, and tone. In other words, it is inferior writing.

While orthodox educators would tolerate some format instruction at the grammar stage, to advance format writing into the dialectic and especially rhetoric stages is disasterous. At the heart of classical education is the notion that there are legitimate classics. Classics have timeless application, survive multiple readings, and concern world view issues. It is impossible to teach people how to write about classical literature unless the teacher himself has read and studied the classics! Format writing pragmatism purports to do exactly that.

To pretend to do so is the height of hypocrisy. It is what Plato called sophism. Sophism, an argument apparently correct in form but actually invalid, emphasizes form and function before content, purpose, and audience. Sophists teach anything for a price. Their teaching was practical instead of et hical and they emphasized rhetoric rather than virtue. Equally reprehensible, sophists were unwilling to pay the dues that serious rhetoric demanded—the discipline of study and of education. They were in a sense the marketing agents of their age. Their product was an inch thin and a mile long but it was appealing to the consumer. It was readily available at an exorbitant price, true, but the most unethical politician could hire a sophist to write a speech, or to write an essay on any subject to any audience. Neither really mattered. Since sophists believed one could communicate regardless of audience, or purpose, or content, it really did not matter. Sophists were mercenary pragmatists who wrote and spoke well but produced no lasting culture.

In summary, in format writing, reality begins and ends with the writer. It discourages the discovery of metaphor and discourages the discipline of writing to an audience. True writing, true rhetoric demands that we reclaim the use of metaphor. I t demands, too that, we consider our audience. Central to metaphor is comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar phenomena and this is absolutely critical to creative problem solving. After all, how does one describe love? Hope? Faith? These are metaphors that Christian believers use to describe the character of God and His people. Format writing invites participants to write coldly with no content, with no audience—with no metaphors.. Without creative metaphors Christianity is forced to abandon all hope of advancing fresh metaphors for the timeless truth of the Gospels. After all, all we need to do is write five paragraphs with transitions and 3 ly words. Would 1 Corinthians 13 fit a format? It was birthed by the Holy Spirit and it is full of creative, fresh metaphors that would have remained undiscovered in most format writing programs. In fact, the entire book of Revelation is iconoclastic. Metaphors, figurative and creative images of reality, are not necessary and will be lost in cold format writing.


Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Format writing is not based on any sound educational theory—affectivee or cognitive—for a very good reason: because is no good educational theory that supports format writing! The closest facsimile is the lower, perhaps the lowest, stage(s) of Bloom’s cognitive developmental theory (6 stages).

What is format writing? The following are indicators of format writing:

  1. Inevitably format writing emphasizes form over content. A format writer is virtually unable to participate in meaningful literary analysis (i.e., profound analysis of a literary piece).
  2. Format writing is full of broad, predictable generalizations where the writer purports to be a specialist in everything. But in fact the format writer is substantially unable to develop, and much less to defend, any serious rhetorical point. One rarely finds a credible thesis (i.e., purpose statement) in a format writing piece.
  3. All essays begin and end exactly the same way. Predictability is a sign of inferior writing and endemic to format writing.
  4. While form essays are marginally acceptable in the late grammar and early dialectic stage, inevitably rhetoric level students are unable to cope with the content-heavy stresses of the rhetoric level.
  5. Format writers are virtually never published. They are doomed to languish in the throes of pre dictability and mediocrity.
  6. Finally, format writing does not consider audience, content, or purpose. It can lead to sterile, inferior writing.

Short Stories

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

A short story is more than a short story. It is an author’s vision of reality written in a focused, brief way. The Romantic poet Edgar Allan Poe, in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in Graham’s Magazine, May 1842, wrote:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. . . In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design. . . Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem, but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

Poe argued that “unity of impression” is of primary importance; the most effective story is one that can be read at a single sitting. The short story writer should deliberately subordinate everything in the story–characters, incidents, style, and tone–to bringing out of a single, preconceived effect or thesis. The tale may be made a vehicle for a great variety of these effects than even the short poem.

Remembering – Part 28

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I was thinking of my mom this morning. She is deceased for 8 years. I wonder if she would have liked the new president? I think so. In her own way she was a forward thinking woman–but she never would admit it.

My mother was victimized by racism but not a victim of racism. Racism was a fad to her. It was her ticket into southern respectability. Born into abject poor white trash poverty, mom was only too glad to gain prestige through racism. Racism held sincerely and resolutely brought acceptance and, in a word, pedigree. It tied ones blood lines to Southern ethos as surely as belonging to the Daughters of the Confederacy. In fact, she grasped it with gusto and vigor. Her manifestations of racism were particularly insidious and full of vigor. She hated blacks but loved the intrigue that they brought to her world. They made her life, her country, her land nonpareil. It was not the fear or the anger that drew her. It was the anger, and the intrigue that so much nonplused emotion brought her. Her racism was her own. like a woman preparing for a debutante party. She nurtured it, refined it, savored it. It was her gentleman caller for whom she had waited all her life. But ironically, in her ambivalence, she raised a boy who has three African-American children!

Remembering – Part 27

Monday, March 30th, 2009

“Oh beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years.” I had pleaded with my neighbors not to go. “It is like going to a pornographic movie. You really don’t need to go and see what is happening to know that it is evil,” I said.

But they went. By the hundreds they went. “I am not for the violence,” they sheepishly explained. “But, you know, what they say makes sense.”

What do they say? “The—-hordes have overrun all of America’s major cities, and turned them into jungles, unfit for human habitation.”1 Yes it makes sense. That makes their a ctions even more evil. No, my community has played the harlot.

My family, thanks to the watchful eye of the FBI and the grace of God, survived that evening. My story is the American Story. It is the story of racism and its resulting racial anger can do to one family.

Remembering – Part 26

Friday, March 27th, 2009

In John Milton’s description of Hell in Paradise Lost there is a brilliant image of both utter darkness and the burning fire of God’s judgment juxtaposed in the same place. Much as sin and love coexist in one’s heart. “In utter darkness, their portion set/As far removed from God and light of Heaven.” Then, Milton lights the fires of hell with hatred, rebellion, and prejudice. “. . . the unconquerable will,/And study of revenge, immortal hate,/And courage never to submit or yield.” “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Satan cries to God from the floor of Hell. I felt and saw the cosmological battle between good and evil on the horizon of my property and in the center of my heart.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood,/From sea to shining sea.”

I was angry. And scared. I should have know that there trouble was coming. Two weeks previously I had heard that a giant Klan unity rally would be held near my farm. “It was the only public event that you could still attend and not see a single dirty, filthy, stinking nigger!” an advertising bulletin announced.

“Well, that is comforting,” I snickered, “I do not think my two daughters and my son–the only African Americans who lived within ten miles of the rally–would want to go anyway.”

There was an inordinate amount of traffic in the late afternoon–cars with out-of-state license plates, cars that stopped and whose occupants stepped out to look at my registered Suffolk sheep and, to my horror, at my children playing in the background. My wife Karen gathered her little ones and took them into the house–but where could we be safe? My daughter’s bedroom was next to a window whose glass could easily be shattered by an angry Klansman’s thirty-thirty rifle. Assured of the veracity of our cause, but afraid of a thoughtless, perhaps inebriated Klansmen’s angry rifle shot, we waited for the dawn.

As I said, I had met my antagonist at his father’s funeral a few weeks previously. Then, before I knew that he was the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Kingdom of my unpretentious neighborhood, committed to ridding our neighborhood of niggers, Jews, and other undesirables–as far as I knew my three children and one man were the only African Americans and I knew of only one Jewish family. But the Grand Dragon was nothing more to me than the distraught son of a good man who had recently died. Joe, his father, had died of cancer. The night of his death I held Joe’s hand and led him to Christ. So, I felt nothing but pity for his sheepish son with his head bowed. He had no idea I harbored subversive minorities on my farm and I had no idea he was the esteemed leader of the local imperial kingdom.

On this eerie fall night had the distinct feeling that I still did not know him and he did not know me either. And I still felt sorry for him. But we were more alike than he really knew . .

My three adopted, interracial children were my promised land. They were my new time, my new land, my new chance. They were more than my daughter: they were God’s invitation to me to experience wholeness and new life. You know, what I have learned, and what my Klu Klux Klan neighbor needs to learn, is that being prejudiced is as bad as having others express prejudice against you. People know what Martin Luther King, Jr., did for my African American neighbors but do they understand what he did for me–a prejudiced white Southerner who hated African Americans? King showed me a way home. A way to put an end to this hatred and hopelessness.

Remembering – Part 25

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

It was a warm autumn night in the 1993 Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, an autumn night that belonged more to Pulaski, Tennessee, or Tupelo, Mississippi. By this time in middle October, my family–my wife Karen, my daughters Rachel and Jessica, and my sons Timothy and Peter–was expecting our first snow. But on this night there was only a clear night and the seductive warmth of a gentle breeze.

The unseasonable heat made us uncomfortable. But there were other specters lurking in the pasture on this night. I walked the perimeter of my 9.5 acre sheep farm that my family had hopefully called “The Shepherd’s Glen.” This night I walked in silence, without a flashlight, feeling more and more the stranger, the intruder on this land rather than its proprietor.

With great anticipation my family had purchased this Pennsylvania farm. I had accepted a call to a downtown church only eight miles away. I had my urban church and my wife Karen had her country home! Until this night came we were so very happy.

But the beauty of this night belonged to my Caucasian neighbors. To the Jewish family living nearby, to the interracial couple living a mile away, to the gay couple on the hill, and to my family–with three interracially adopted children–it was a night of terror.

Over the horizon a glow of light kissed the horizon. In the distance I could hear a moving rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” The comforting glow and inspiring melody was disarming. More comfortable with the drone of crickets and the ubiquitous hum of distant automobile traffic, my Suffolk sheep, however, obviously did not appreciate the harmonic offering. Perhaps they saw the fear in their shepherd’s eyes or felt another nameless fear but my Suffolk herd was uncomfortably on this abnormally pleasant fall evening.

The music came from a neighbor’s farm where over two hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan were singing patriotic songs and the glow on the horizon was reflecting three burning crosses. It came from the voices of my neighbors, it came from a poor, confused man on whose farm this KKK rally was held, whose father had been led to Christ through my efforts. But to me it came from Hell.