Conquering Armies

By Scott Keith

Not long ago, we on the Thinking Fellows podcast had the opportunity to interview Dr. James Nestingen. Dr. Nestingen was my Doctor Father and is a good friend. I always love the chance to pick his brain. This time around we discussed Luther’s seminal work, The Bondage of the Will. Dr. Nestingen provided us with many gems, including the advice of reading the book backward, that is from the last half first and the first half last.

If you’ve ever heard Dr. Nestingen speak, you know that it is what he says via informal comments that will blow your mind. This time around, he started by telling us that he laments that fact that Americans tend to read books like “conquering armies.” In other words, Americans tend to want to read a book, overcome it quickly, and then put it on the shelf like a trophy on the wall. The book, having been conquered, will never be heard from again.

Since that time, I have been elaborating on Jim’s ideas with my students at the university. I teach a course that is intended to introduce students to what it means to be a university student. As a part of that course, I give a lecture on the vocation of student. As I gave those lectures last week, I told them that they need to resist the urge to take on ideas such as “vocation” just to attempt to subdue them like a conquering army. Instead, I suggested that they allow words like “vocation,” “meaning,” and “purpose” to soak in so that they can wrestle with these concepts throughout the semester and beyond.

I fear that my words, for the most part, may have fallen on deaf ears. I don’t blame the students; I blame myself, their parents, their schools, and our culture. In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. We have allowed, and even embraced, the idea that fast means “good” and slow means “bad.” The result is that anything which takes time––learning a language, wrestling with difficult concepts, or reading difficult books––is viewed negatively and with a certain amount of disdain. In fact, “hurry up and get it done,” seems to be one of few universal American ethics.

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In the past, training in the classical Trivium––grammar, logic, and rhetoric––attempted to subdue our perceived need to hurry up. Training in grammar entailed not only learning the rules of a language but also a learning how to learn the basics. Once a student had mastered grammar, they moved on to logic, wherein they were educated in the process of learning the meaning, reasons, and motives behind the concept the grammar conveyed. Finally, once the student had made their way through the rigorous process of learning both grammar and logic, they were then taught how to express their ideas via rhetoric.

The key is to remember that rhetorical training entailed bringing to the fore all things previously learned through much time and perseverance in the processes of grammar and logic. Only once a student had fully taken in what it meant to know a concept well––including understanding the logic behind any particular position––was that student invited to “give their opinion.” Opinions are then only expressed once real knowledge has been gained.

Contrast that with the modern educational system, which focuses more on process rather than content. In other words, if your education was like mine, and I suspect it was, you were taught the basics of how to read and then immediately asked what you thought about the text—mechanics and opinion. For years, what has been left out is first wrestling with the text to allow it to speak and inform or unveil and enlighten.

Not only do we treat books like conquering armies, but also ideas. We are all guilty. I would ask our readers who are Christian: Is this how we deal with the Gospel as well? Do we encounter it, conquer it, and then put it on the shelf? Do we attempt to rule the Gospel, or do we take the time to allow it to unveil us? I don’t have the answers to my questions, but still, they are not rhetorical in nature. I think we all need to ask ourselves these questions and take the time to wrestle our way to some clear answers.

Ideas are penultimately important, and the Gospel of Christ is the ultimate truth. It is time to stop our feeble attempts to conquer both the penultimate and ultimate. It is time to take the time to wrestle and perhaps even be conquered.

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One thought on “Conquering Armies

  1. Great stuff!

    Been taking in some of the Thinking Fellows audio while at work. Really enjoying it.

    I have certain books that I not only re-read but acquire in many translations to compare, including my bibles. We own and read many books, frequent many library book sales, and visitors to our house are struck by what they think is our whole library in the living room. We read to our children and always allowed them to pick up any book in the house, no censorship, no restrictions, and bring discussion to the table.

    True story of school knocking the stuffing out of a kid. When my son was in 5th grade, we had given him a Folio edition of Robert Graves works on mythology. Each year, the school did summer reading and the kids were to pick something and than they would do some sort of presentation at the beginning of the next school year, My daughter always flourished with this, she was socially savvy. My son has Asperger’s. So, when assigned to read a biography over the summer, my son chose “Good-Bye to All That” because it was the same Robert Graves. We had dinner table talks and listened to him excitedly discuss his reading, all summer.

    When school started, all of the other kids had basically taken the 100 page, pre-teen bios off the library shelves and they were given their project – draw a picture of what you read and give a 5 minute presentation to the class. The essay my son thought he’d get to write and the full period presentation he thought he’d give was not to be. He walked up to the teacher and said “I can’t do that for my book.” we had to negotiate and alternate assignment with a teacher who had no interest in reading an essay.

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