Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer Before Study

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After offering his praises to the “Ineffable Creator,” Thomas Aquinas writes in his “Prayer Before Study:”

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants; refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech.

May You guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion. You Who are true God and true Man, Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.

This version is quoted in Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler’s Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words [affiliate link]. This prayer serves as a frame when approaching the writing task.

If you were to write a prayer for your work, what would you ask for? What do you need? What do you hope for as outcomes? Where could you use help?

The Bible in Light of the Resurrection

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Timothy J. Keller, in Hope in Times of Fear [affiliate link], writes this about what happened to Saint Paul when he began to look at everything in the Bible (for Paul, the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) in light of Jesus’ resurrection:

Once Paul began to look at everything in the light of Jesus resurrected and vindicated by God, the Bible fit together and everything in the world and in his life looked different. Certainly he had not worked out all the answers to his original objections to Christianity. But once he realized Jesus was risen, he knew there had to be answers to all those objections. So he believed in Christ, began to preach, and proceeded to work out the details as he went along.

We should proceed the same way. Think of all the objections to Christianity regarding repressive sexuality or the record of the church’s injustices. Do any of these things, if true, mean Jesus could not h ave risen from the dead? That’s the first and foremost question to ask. Have we looked at the evidence for the resurrection thoroughly? All our objections actually hang on this issue. If he did not rise from the dead, who cares what the Bible says about sex or about the history of the church? But if he did rise from the dead, then Christianity and its gospel is true, and while we don’t yet have solutions to all those other objections, we can move forward knowing that answers to those questions exist.

If you are looking at Christianity, start by looking at Jesus’ life as it is shown to us in the gospels, and especially at the resurrection. Don’t begin, as modern people do, by asking yourself if Christianity fits who you are. If the resurrection happened, then there is a God who created you for himself and ultimately, yes, Christianity fits you whether you can see it now or not. If he’s real and risen, then just like Paul, even though he had none of the answers to any of his questions, you’ll have to say, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

The resurrection is not only a vital belief for Christian people, but it is a powerful reality that animates all of Christian life. Hope in Times of Fear makes a case for the resurrection, but also shows the ways it shapes our moral choices, relationships, vision of justice, and our future hope.

The Original Languages

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Matthew 18:15-20 says:

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

And in Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, Craig S. Keener comments:

In some translations of Matthew 18:18, it sounds like Jesus promised his disciples that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. In other words, they had the power to bind and to loose, and Heaven (i.e., God) would simply back up their decrees. But the matter is not quite so simple; the actions described in heaven are future perfect passives–which could be translated “will have already been bound in heaven…will have already been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the heavenly decree confirming the earthly one is based on a prior verdict.

This is the language of the law court. Jewish legal issues were normally decided in Jesus’ day by elders in the synagogue community (later by rabbis). Many Jewish people believed that the authority of Heaven stood behind the earthly judges when they decided cases based on a correct understanding of God’s law. (This process came to be called “binding and loosing.”) Jesus’ contemporaries often envisioned God’s justice in terms of a heavenly court; by obeying God’s law, the earthly court simply ratified the decrees of the heavenly court. In Matthew 18:15-20, Christians who follow the careful procedures of verses 15-17 may be assured that they will act on the authority of God’s court when they decide cases.

Just as we struggle to affirm absolutes in a relativist culture, Christians today sometimes wonder how to exercise discipline lovingly against a sinning member of the church. In this text, Jesus provides an answer: when the person refuses to turn from sin after repeated loving confrontation, the church by disciplining the person simply recognizes the spiritual reality that is already true in God’s sight.

Mounce’s Greek grammar is filled with these kinds of exegetical insights, which I’ve enjoyed reading immensely. I’ve returned to my Greek textbooks (and others) this year to re-familiarize myself with basic principles of the Greek language. I’ve even resorted to flash cards. I’m trying to expand my vocabulary. I’ve struggled with languages–and not just Greek and Hebrew. But I’ve taken Greek up again because I felt called to, and because I think it will make me a better student and teacher of the Bible.

I have a long running joke with a family member of mine about the original languages. It usually involves making light of a minister’s claim that they can tell us what the text really says, while the hoi polloi, plebes, rabble, and riffraff in the pews need “experts” to help us see more clearly what is plainly before our faces. We’re Baptists. We take issue with authority. As a Baptist minister, I know what it feels like to be taken issue with. It goes with the turf.

But as I’ve studied church history and listened to preachers, I’ve found that the Bible teachers and preachers who make the most compelling and interesting presentations of a biblical text are familiar with the biblical language, or can at least make use of the tools of translation available to us today. They know the basic rules of the grammar, and can help us see the way the words run as presented by the original authors, and as heard by the original addressees.

There are exceptions, of course. But reform movements possessing both depth and longevity have developed biblical, systematic, and practical theologies that evidence close study and exposition of Scripture as presented in the original languages.

Will the Search Be Undertaken?

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Leigh Stein’s “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” appearing in The New York Times, identifies a multi-layered problem. This past year we’ve experienced isolation due to the pandemic, we’re addicted to our phones, and we long for connection, meaning, and transcendence. It turns out we are human after all.

But many millennials and Gen-Zers are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Emerging generations either did not receive formation in a religious tradition or have disaffiliated with the tradition of their youth for various reasons. Ms. Stein is one of those millennials. She substituted political activism for a stretch. Social media has been an outlet.

But both have come up short. Ms. Stein writes:

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.

Her perspective turns following a conversation with a person of an older generation:

My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.

I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”

And her conclusion is an outright stunner:

There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

But where will she, and others like her, ultimately land?

Artifacts and Internet Writing

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My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved. 

But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you.

So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please. 

Alan Jacobs captures something of how I feel about writing on the web. Amazingly, I’ve been messing around with a website since spring 1998. I designed something on GeoCities. My web presence has had other iterations, more than I can count. Maybe at some point I thought that work would endure, but I don’t think that anymore.

I write for pleasure and for the same reason a lot of other writers write: because I have a desire to connect with other people, a desire to do the work, and a desire to discover what I think through what I write.

As for artifacts, I won’t be handing over text files, but I will leave behind notebooks. As for whether or not there will be anything in them of interest of value, that will be for others to decide.

Don’t Let the Darkness Overtake You

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Words cut like scalpels in the surgery against depression, and vocabulary selection makes a difference. I choose not to say, “I’m depressed.” That centers things too internally and ontologically. It implies I am my emotional state. But we are far more than just our feelings. In fact, we are not our feelings. Our identity is grounded elsewhere. I also choose not to say (out loud or internally) “I struggle with depression.” That feels too even-handed, with the outcome too much in question. I am the victor in this battle or, at least, I need to be. How I see and express things tilts the scales either in my favor or against it. I advance in the battle with words carefully chosen. I don’t just struggle with depression; I push it back. I battle against it. I fight.

Not all Christian discourse about mental health is helpful, but this essay by Randy Newman is an exception.

If you’ve battled depression, wondered how to think about depression in light of Christian convictions, or have a friend you are trying to help as they face depression, read Newman for counsel.

Education: More Than Social Connections

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This much discussed report by Bari Weiss, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” is worth a look. Her findings are troubling. Disturbing. Unsettling. But are they surprising? I don’t think so.

There’s a long debate that spans history about education–what it is, how it is done, who is responsible for doing it, and what its proper end should be. One end of education is socialization. The advancement, preservation, discovery and transmission of knowledge, imparting wisdom, and moral formation are other ends. Some educational traditions and institutions combine aims.

It is hard to read Weiss’ reporting on Harvard-Westlake, an elite private school in Los Angeles, and not conclude that socialization is of vital importance, if not for the school, then certainly for the parents. These parents choose to send their children to this school, even if their children tell them “they’re afraid to speak up in class.”

The parents are afraid to speak up, too. They’re concerned about the ideology that is being taught but not enough to go elsewhere. They’re willing to suffer discomfort to gain the connections. It’s a trade.

Weiss also reports on dynamics at a comparable East Coast school; the same logic holds.

These parents, who insisted on maintaining anonymity for this report, may not like what’s taking place at their schools. But they’re willing to accept it if they continue to believe that participation in these schools will help their children–and them–to benefit socially.

Ideological trends tend to continue until people find the courage to object. What is allowed will continue.

Alan Jacobs raises the right question, “But there’s one question that I think everyone reading such stories should ask: Will the students believe what they are taught?

Weiss reports, “The idea of lying in order to please a teacher seems like a phenomenon from the Soviet Union. But the high schoolers I spoke with said that they do versions of this, including parroting views they don’t believe in assignments so that their grades don’t suffer.”

They already don’t believe it; they know how the game is played.

Jacobs observes, “I suspect that such a system is less likely to produce True Woke Believers than to produce young people who are thoroughly cynical about education and about the dishonesty and hypocrisy of educators. And that might be a worse outcome.”

I think he’s right on both counts, concerning both what such a system will render and that such an outcome is worse.