Democracies, like America, must have an educated and informed population if they wish to remain free; however, not all people in democracies are educated and informed. People can be educated but uninformed, sticking their heads in the sand while the world spins out of control around them. People in the sphere of classical education can fall into this sinful pattern as well, even though the Bible and church history push us away from this abstracted lifestyle. We are called to know the timeless truth of the Bible and to use that timeless truth to engage the issues of our day. For example, the scriptures praise the men of Issachar who “understood the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Another example from church history is: Thomas Aquinas recommends the wisdom that he calls prudence which is really “wisdom about what to do next.”
Our culture, however, faces the opposite temptation. Many are well informed about the issues of the day, but they don’t have the foundation of the Great Books and the Bible to rest this knowledge on. These people are buffeted by the 24-hour news cycle. These battered people have three reactions to the news, all of which are bad. The first takes the news cycle as an invitation to constant, ceaseless war. These people are often angry and see life only through the metaphor of battle, fighting a battle against climate change, against gender inequality, or against any new hot button topic of the day. The second reaction also takes the news cycle seriously but instead of battle it gives way to despair. These people see the catastrophes on the news and, instead of fighting back like the first group of people, decide that the world is a losing battle and that giving up is the only option. Finally, there are those who end up avoiding anger and despair only to fall into cynicism. They lose their belief in humanity because of the despicable actions of criminals on the news.
All of us are tempted in all three of these ways at times. Consequently, I want to demonstrate three ways that the Great Books—the books we read in Omnibus—can help us combat these temptations and provide an opportunity for us to be engaged, hopeful people during challenging times.
Way 1: The Great Books Show us that Many Issues are Complex and Take Time to Solve
Our culture’s attention span is tiny. Because of technology, we can have instant gratification for many of our entertainment desires. Therefore, many successful leaders play to these short attention spans and focus on authenticity, instinct, and snarky sound bites without delving into the actual issue. The Great Books help us to understand that many issues—and almost all of the most important issues—can’t be solved in 140 characters. The big issues require time, thought, and nuance. One is reminded of the great debate about salvation that occurred at the time of the Reformation between Luther and Erasmus. They did not trade tweets; they traded books. Almost all of the Greatest Books are aiming at things that cannot be digested quickly. These ideas require reflection, debate, and careful argumentation.
I am, however, not saying that all replies must be lengthy to be profitable. The Great Books also teach us that eventually we do need to understand issues so well that we can pass them along to people in pithy, understandable truths. Movements of people need leaders who can sum up complex ideas in powerful symbols and phrases. Luther and the reformers eventually summed up their complex debates using just the phrase “justification by faith.” The American Founders summed up their argument with Great Britain, saying, “No taxation without representation!” The Great Books help us to see that, if we wish to influence people on important issues, we must have a deep understanding of these issues and the ability to bring profound ideas down to the popular level.
Way 2: The Great Books Help Us Correct our Unrealistic Desires for Quiet, Peace, and Prosperity
Too often we are manipulated by the loud voices in our culture screaming each night that the sky is falling. These professional pot-stirrers agitate our hearts and minds. Too often, we turn from the spectacle of this cacophony hoping for quiet times of peace and prosperity, the good old days that your grandparents reminisced about. Often, we miss the fact that those perfect times never existed and can never exist in this fallen world. Homer wrote during the Greek Dark Age. Dante wrote in exile. The New Testament church was embroiled in controversy where leaders like Demas wandered from the faith and where entire churches, like the Galatians, appeared to be drifting from the gospel.
Also, if we listen to anxiety-laden rants that pervade our culture and the news, we miss the good things that are all around us. Catastrophes are constantly reported in the news, way more than the blessings that are happening at the same time. If we look at the full story, catastrophes and blessings, we should realize that we actually live in a blessed time that is full of challenges. If one looks carefully at history they will realize that almost all times are like this. The Great Books help us to see that the dystopian predictions of the Young Adult Literature rack are overblown and that dreams of a utopian future of quiet, peace, and prosperity are unrealizable.
Way 3: The Great Books Show Us How to Avoid Being Breathless and Scandalized by Arguments
We live in a pretty fragile world where strong words lead to hurt feelings that end discussion. The Great Books, however, show us a very a very different picture of argument. A picture where mature people make strong arguments and develop thick skin. To grow, we have to both listen and make arguments. Sometimes we are going to believe something deeply, and we are going to be wrong. We need others to show us our error through arguments. Some people accept at they are wrong when this is done gently, but if you are stubborn like me, you need a verbal two by four broken over your head to convince you that you are wrong. This verbal beatdown happens sometimes in the Great Books and in the Bible. Jesus calls the religious leaders “white washed tombs” and “sons of the devil.” Whack! Dante has parts of hell filled with the religious and political leaders of his day. Whack! When talking heads breathlessly say that this argument or that a scandal is “unprecedented” or “unique”, we should know enough to look past their sensational rhetoric to the substance of a matter. When the claim that someone can’t be trusted or even heard because his or her arguments don’t agree with whatever is currently popular, we should see this for the fallacious thinking that it is. We should laugh, produce counter-examples, and then get down to the hard word of finding truth.
In conclusion, there are many benefits to reading the books in the Omnibus. Being liberated from the foolish, narrow view of reality that dominates our popular culture through the news is one of the most helpful, and personally gratifying benefits from reading the books in the Omnibus.
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