Compelled by Christ in the Classics

"Let me visit your chamber, your parlor, or wherever you keep your books. What is here? Byron, Scott, Shakespeare and a host of triflers and blasphemers of God...No matter whether you are a professor of religion or not. You are a miserable sinner before God if you spend your time in such reading."

The line above is dated December 4, 1839 from the mouth of Charles Finney in a sermon titled "Grieving the Holy Spirit".  Finney's words might as well have come from the University of Minnesota circa 2013.

The University of Minnesota has established a College in the Schools (CIS) program which provides college preparatory curriculum that results in colllege credits for high school students who adhere to strict guidelines in the public school. The course in English literature was recently critiqued in a Star Tribune opinion column

The opinion column, penned by English Professor Mark Bauerlein at Emory University in Atlanta, unveils the intent of the CIS program to indoctrinate high school students in liberal and Marxist thought by excluding classic literature and replacing it with contemporary popular works in their English Literature course.

An aid in drafting the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, Bauerlein builds his case against the University of Minnesota's course by pointing out the exclusion of classic literature as wrongheaded. Noting authors missing from the University of Minnesota's required reading listing, Bauerlein insinuates that the course is inculcating students in the wrong course because only 4 authors fit the overall goal to, "Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature..."

The similarity between Charles Finney's comment and the University of Minnesota's CIS program is that both are working to sterilize literature. Both have an ideology they want to propogate in an effective and uncontaminated fashion that limits questioning and exploration outside of the norm they are working to create.

The beauty of the classics is in their cultured explanation of reality, calling readers to dive deeper into life by exploring complex ideas and their relationship to an overarching movement. A correct view of the classics sees the movement leading the world towards resolution, something that classifies a story worth reading, giving hope.

What Bauerlein finds in the University's deconstruction of the Classics is a strong emphasis on Marxist and liberal teaching with little room for exploring alternative resolutions to life's problems. The University of Minnesota communicates this clearly in their sample syllabi, stating:

This course will introduce students to the background and application of a number of theoretical lenses: structuralism, modernism, post-modernism (deconstruction), new historicism, cultural materialism; as well as psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and LGBT criticism. Deborah Appleman, Peter Barry, Terry Eagleton and Lois Tyson have written accessible introductory theory texts.


Excluded classics by Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot and Langston Huges have been superceeded by Amy Tan, Tim O'Brien, June Jordan and Paul Monnette, whose memoir of his suppressing and then celebrating his own homosexuality attributed his autobiography to "literally kept me alive" after he contracted AIDS. His book gains credibility to be in the University of Minnesota's English Literature class because it won a 1992 National Book Award, and completes the over-arching goal of communicating LGBT themes in America, not addressing the said purpose of a knowledge in "eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature...".

The disappointment in including contemporary authors in the literature course frustrates any movement in resolution as seen in the syllabi. Instead of working to understand the structure of society and enduring messages communicated through centuries of literature the desired outcome is to study contemporary issues and fuel their fire of disorder by highlighting dissenting voices of structure and leading to criticism rather than critique. 

At Hillcrest we have noticed this shift in teaching the classics. We have employed Louise Cowan and Os Guinness' Invitation to the Classics to support the education students are receiving in reading William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to name a few.

We do not fall in line with the thought espoused by Charles Finney. We understand that the Classics, works defined by their ability to create whole universes of thought and imagination that portray life as complex, with both negative and positive aspects of human character, illuminating and testing enduring virtues that transform the reader's self-understanding inspite of rereadings, enduring wide reaches of time to be reflections of the Gospel story.

The Classics aren't a canon which communicate the message of God's love through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, though some may tell this story through literary achievement. The classics are instead portals to explore, which when read correctly, can speak of honor, love and sacrifice, often articulated in unfamiliar ways advising in thoughts not already know. As Louise Cowan notes, "Through symbol and metaphor they (the Classics) reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives."

Jesus taught in symbol and metaphor throughout the New Testament, we believe the challenge of reading and understanding the classics is an exercise in thinking deeper of life in an effort to know Christ, propelling followers to make Him known, being commissioned to live a life of significance.

Hillcrest Academy