Ryken on Christian literature

The intellectual usefulness of literature is not that it necessarily tells us the truth about an issue but rather that it serves as a catalyst to thinking about the great issues of life. If this is true, we can also see how misguided has been the frequent assumption that it is the task of Christian literary criticism to show that works of literature are Christian. The task is rather to assess whether and to what degree works are Christian in their viewpoint. Christian enthusiasts for literature too often seek to baptize every work of literature that they love.

Been reading articles in Dr. Leland Ryken’s anthology of works on literature and the Christian imagination, called “The Christian Imagination.”  Writers like JRR Tolkien, Francish Schaeffer, Annie Dillard, George MacDonald and others weigh in on the conversation.

Leland Ryken is professor of English at Wheaton College, and was the stylistic consultant for the ESV, and who authored “The ESV and the English Bible Legacy” which I highly recommend, if you’re the least bit interested in the heritage of our English Bible.

Naivety, Christmas and Oral Cultures

I’ve been living here in Turkey now for about 3 years now, and have enjoyed every minute of it.  Some of those minutes have been stressful for sure, but somehow as I’ve waded the stressful waters of culture learning and language learning, I’ve deeply enjoyed it all.

Christmas in Turkey is always a bitter sweet time.  We miss our families so much, the sights and sounds and smells of the season are becoming something of a forgotten dream.   This Christmas was especially sweet because of who I was able to spend it with; good friends we’ve made here and with my son who just turned one year old.  It’s been such a pleasure seeing his infatuation with the Christmas tree and its lights, and his delight in having new toys in his possession.

Understanding and seeing Christmas and New Years from a Turkish point of view has been interesting to say the least.  The resultant layers of misunderstanding have lead to this hate banner, created by a very small political party ironically called Happiness Party.

Santa Beıng Clobbered

(It reads “No! to Christmas and New Years celebrations”)

Let me explain the cultural backdrop of this absurd ad, which I find to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year.

1)       I would say 60% of Turks (at least ones here in Adana) hold to the idea that Christmas and New Years are one and the same holiday; celebrated on December 31st.  A large Wal-Mart-like store here in Turkey sells “New Years Trees”, not “Christmas Trees.”  In most Turks’ minds the idea of Santa Claus, trees, “Christmas” decorations are attributed to the cheer and feel of New Years.  It’s an easy mistake perhaps, both holidays are very close to each other in the West.

2)      Of these 60% there are those who don’t celebrate New Years Eve because it has been tainted by Christmas, a Christian holiday.  (And if you are a Turk, I would love to hear your point of view in the comments).

So this ad is really not reflective of the majority of Turks’ views of the holidays, but rather highlights a very interesting characteristic  about Turks, that is both their strength and weakness.  Mainly that this is an oral culture…mostly.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines oral culture as:

The spoken relation and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people’s cultural history and ancestry, often by a storyteller in narrative form.

(I want to add two things: to say a culture is “oral” does not mean they are “illiterate”, and the second thing, no single culture is solely “oral” or solely “literate”, but are generally characterized by one or the other)

For example, that was not very oral culture-ish of me, I relied on a written authority, instead of relying on what my father or ancestors said,  which we don’t do as “literate cultures” in the West.  If someone said, “The Americans landed on the moon,” someone from an oral culture would then ask, “Who told you this?”  The oral cultural response would be, “Well, my _________ told me,” and depending on whether this feels right or like a puzzle piece, fits in to a previous worldview category, you may or may not believe them.  In this case, Turks as a whole (as I’ve found so far) disregard the moon landing, because of the absurdity of it; it doesn’t fit.  But say if someone says to his neighbor, “Obama put our president, Tayyıp Erdoğan, in power” they would accept that (which many do) because it fits; because news and gossip columns are riddled with enough conspiracy theories to keep film makers busy for centuries if they chose to film them.

My co-worker was just talking to her cleaning lady the other day about the holidays and they began to start talking about the New Years.  She told my friend that she wouldn’t celebrate it because it’s a Christian holiday.  When my friend asked her why not, and tried to explain it’s a secular holiday, and that she shouldn’t worry as a Muslim, she replied, “Well, that’s what my father says, so we don’t celebrate it.”

Like I said before, I love Turkey and its people, but transmission of information solely by word of mouth, as is the case in oral cultures, contains a major flaw.  No one asks the question, “Well, how do you know?  He told you? Then how does he know?”  or the question “On what authority do you know this?” and on and on it goes until you get to the authorial intent, or the original occurrence in history like Christmas and New Years.  It simply doesn’t happen here, at least not enough.

The result is this: a hate banner that simply shows how naive its propagators are, based on a serious misunderstanding of both the culture and religion they are trying to “protect” their people from.

As a parting thought, as a literate culture, maybe our own weakness is that we don’t talk about things enough, perhaps we are content in simply knowing the truth….but do we?

 (I wrote this article not to return hate speech with hate speech (I forgive them), but I’m attempting to understand and write about the cause of such speech, and explore ways a culture operates, and how a culture simply communicates can lend itself to mistakes like this.  In actuality I didn’t take it personally, the image of an overweight Santa Claus being clobbered is not very offensive to me, I kind of expect such childish behavior from these people)

***Edited – After reconsidering all the people who I’ve talked with, I upped my estimation that I made in point #1 from 40% to 60% hold that Dec. 31st is both Christmas and New Years Eve.***

What Defines You?

If I were to ask you “what defines you?”, what would you say?  Are you defined by what you do (your job, sport or hobby)?  Who you are culturally (African, hipster, gothic, etc.)?  By what ideals you hold to (Aristotelian thought, Nihilism, ideas of morality)?

Have you ever though about what God thinks about you?  If you are not religious or spiritual, this probably never happens, or often, who knows.  What if how you define yourself ought to be tied up in how God sees you.  After all, he made you.  Before the world was created, he had YOU in mind, and in this particular slot in history, he has placed you.

I’m one who places his trust in Jesus Christ, who came to earth to give us Love; the Father’s Love.  And it is in Christ where my hope and life lies.  Below is a video brilliantly made by an artist named Dan Stevers, and if you also put your faith in Christ, let it just remind you of the basics; that if indeed you’ve placed your life in Christ, how our Father views you, is how you are defined, is where your true identity lies.

I would like to challenge you.  Is your identity grounded in something that will last?  Say, forever?  When you’re dead, will the way you are defined, save you from death itself?  What if by embracing God’s identity for you, you become saved from death, and when death comes knocking on your door, it won’t be able to enter.  What if by embracing God’s identity for you, you tap into the very core of why you’re created.  And finally, what if by embracing God’s purpose for your life, you become a better singer, a better athlete, a better worker, a better mother, or a better father.

What Is the Oldest Carol We Have?

(This is my fourth installment in a series I call Christmas Carol Countdown where I’m endeavoring to uncover the rich history of Christmas carols)

As I’ve said before I love carols, and it is my goal to deepen my understanding of how these carols have come about.  I’ve often wondered what the first carols might have sounded like.  Most of the carols we know of today were written in the 1800’s and after.  Perhaps they were of humble beginnings, sounding nothing like the carols we have, or perhaps, they were glorious beyond imagination.

At first efforts, I went way way back and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t the angels who sung to the shepherds be the first carolers ever?”  It’s a song.  It’s about Christmas.  For those of you who don’t know, it went like this:

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying; Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  Luke 1:13-14

Then I realized a few things.  One, this technically was not about Christmas yet, as far as the meaning of Christmas goes.  It comes from “Christ Mass”; yes, mass like the boring service your grandmother used to drag you to.  Over the years, we simply started calling it Christmas, because it was easier.  But I guess in a way because they were singing about Jesus Christ, it might have been the first carol.

Then the other thing I realized was, according to the definition of carol, it has to be a song.  Take a look at the verse again.  Are the angels singing? “…heavenly host praising God saying…” (italics added)  They were simply speaking!  Not singing!  I remember a preacher once saying, “It takes for a soul to be lost and found for it to be able to sing.  Angels have never been lost, they’ve always dwelt in the presence of the Lord, and so they simply proclaim praise.  We get the privilege to sing.”  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but it’s an interesting notion.

So, according to the traditional definition of carol, Luke’s gospel account of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, indeed does not count as the first carol.  In my book.

My hope then leaned on our early Church Fathers to show me the glory of the first carol.  As multiple sources said, the earliest (perhaps even earlier, I don’t assume exhaustive knowledge) mentions a carol or nativity hymn in the 3rd century.  Interestingly we have documents of our Church Fathers’ writings that go back even to the 2nd century, but unfortunately we only begin to hear of some sort of Christmas liturgy around the 3rd century.  Our dear church fathers, Saint Hippolytus of Rome and Sextus Julius Africanus, mentioned a nativity liturgy.  What they were singing…we don’t know.  Sorry if I got you going there.  But, thankfully around the 4th century we may have our first carol.  Drum roll please.

By Saint Ephraim the Syrian, a hymn (AD 306-373)

The feast day of your birth resembles You, Lord
Because it brings joy to all humanity.
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day.
Your day is celebrated
from generation to generation.
Kings and emperors may pass away,
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse.
But your festival
will be remembered until the end of time.
Your day is a means and a pledge of peace.
At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled,
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt.
You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth:
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick;
Spiritual light for the blind;
The cup of salvation for the thirsty;
The bread of life for the hungry.
In the winter when trees are bare,
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit.
In the frost when the earth is barren,
You bring new hope to our souls.
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil,
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb

There we have it!  The first extant carol of our time.  It doesn’t rhyme  and meter like some carols, it probably can’t be put to a catchy tune as some carols do, but it wonderfully captures the spirit and reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place…the birth of hope for mankind.

Catechism or Kid’s Song – “The 12 Days of Christmas”

(This is my third installment in a series that explores our rich tradition of Christmas Carols and its rich history)

I myself was excited to start studying the history of this one, and I found a number of surprises.  At least to me they were.  For example I had no idea the 12 days of Christmas was an actual calendar set of days, after December 25th, which usually ends January 6th with a climactic feast called Ephipany.  It was an old Christian tradition dating back to Shakespeare’s time, and for you Shakespeare fanatics this comes at no surprise to you right?  The Twelfth Night?  (If you want to learn more about that tradition you can look up a pretty good article about it here.)

What really intrigued me was, what is up with all this fowl language.  Some of the first articles I read said that each bird or gift was a coded article that persecuted Catholics in 18th century England used to memorize the tenants of their faith with.  Honestly, I think I heard this before, and at first reaction, I believed it.  However after digging deeper, there is evidence to point in the direction that this carol was merely a kid’s song.  One of the more interesting articles said that during the twelve days of Christmas, children would sing this song in a sort of chorus; a child would sing the first verse, then the second child in the group would sing the second, and whoever couldn’t keep up would be out of the group.

At first I thought, here we go again, people just trying to put down traditions of the church.  Haters.  But I came across some good reasons as to why it wouldn’t be some sort of underground catechism (I’ll just list one for space sake); both Anglicans (the persecutors), and the Catholics (persecuted), believed in many common tenants that the song says Catholics needed to keep secret.  For example, partridge = Jesus, two French hens = New and Old Testament, etc.  These are tenants that are shared between denominations and would not require one to go underground.  Another real good indicator that it is false, is that this idea is actually a modern one.  First writings that purport this idea came as late as 1979, whereas the song first appears in 1780, and the tune even earlier than that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we may just have a real good children’s song etched in our Christmas Carols history, which I am fine with.  It’s a lovely song, not much meaning at all anymore for me, but lovely still the same.  Images of birds I’ve never seen dance through my mind, as I then catch them and wrap them and give them to my wife.  I think I just imagine pheasants and pigeons, with funny tails.

Don’t go just yet, there’s more.  Some say that what might have happened is around the late 1700’s the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” might have been confused somehow with a traditional catechism type song called, “A New Dial” (or also known as “In Those Twelve Days” in some circles I guess).  Consider the lyrics below of the first six days:

What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.

What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.

What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity.

What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ’s birth, life, death which do declare.

What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.

What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.

I suppose it is possible that the “The 12 Days of Christmas” could have been an evolution of this song into less religious lyrics.  However, I’m inclined to think though that this song, which came out about 100 years prior to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, in 1625, instead lent a catchy tune to a kids song…about birds I’ve never heard of.

So what to do now?  I feel like I just popped the fantasy bubble in some peoples minds that this song had a deep important underlying meaning.  To you, I’m deeply sorry.  But seriously, what to do.  Not sure, but I think I’m going to try singing it the way it was meant to be sung; in choruses in a group with children, and the one who can’t keep up, has to take a shot of that crazy Christmas drink with raw eggs.

Happy Caroling!

A Carol That Welcomed Sacred Skulls & Bones – “I Saw Three Ships”

(This is the second installment in a series where I will explore the rich history of music surrounding the holiday of Christmas)

This one may not be so popular with everyone, but maybe I’m just saying that because I only vaguely remember the melody, let alone the words.  I got reacquainted with it as we were playing it on our playlist of Christmas Carols, and a question was just not let my mind go; “What’s up with the three ships?”  Are they an allusion to the Trinity, but in the song they only mention Jesus and Mary.  Is it because a city’s savior in the form of a military squadron of three boats came sailing in that morning?

As history would have it, the three ships came bearing gifts on Christmas, but not any ol’ gift you would give your wife or sister.  It is thought the three ships were carrying the remains of the Biblical Magi (which is a word, by the way, that comes from Old Persian, magus, meaning sorcerer, referring to a highly revered caste of Zoroastrians, of which one of the magi probably came) spoken of in the Christmas narrative in the Bible.  In agreement with the medieval churches interesting infatuation with saintly remains, their skulls and the rest, were being transported to the Cologne Cathedral, after of course, being wrapped in beautiful bows and ribbons.  They were a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa to Cologne, as a gift after capturing Milan, which is where the bones were before.  So yes it’s a nice carol, but it was also a song dedicated to the arrival of some very important relics.

“But”, you may say, “the lyrics say the ships came into Bethlehem.”  One quick look at a map of Israel shows you that disappointingly the city of Bethlehem is very land-locked.  So, I’m not sure what to say.  Perhaps some Broadway genius decided to take a Christmas themed play and mixed in it with a dash of Peter Pan and his flying ship.  The world may never know the reason for this discrepancy.

Happy Caroling!

Christmas Carol Countdown – Be a More Informed Caroler (intro)

It’s December 1st today, and Christmas is just around the corner.  If you’re like me, as you’ve enjoyed singing carols year in and year out, you come across songs and lyrics and realize, “I have no idea what I’m singing about, but hey, it feels good to be a part of this tradition of music.”  Like who is “Good King Wencelass”, why are the “Three Ships” important, where did the “drummer boy” come in to the Christmas story, and what is up with all the ridiculous types of birds, like turtle doves, French hens, and partridges.

There is such a beautiful tradition of music surrounding our holiday of Christmas, and it is my goal this Christmas to be a better informed carol singer.  Long gone will the days be when as I sung a carol tune I would wish I knew the context of the song.

Join me as we explore together the beautifully rich tradition of music that stretches back to the time of Christ.  We will explore the backdrop to some well known carols that everyone is familiar with, and lesser known ones as well.

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