Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource. — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.


And . . . done.

Yesterday I finished the Reading List Exams for U of T’s MA in Classics.  This was the conclusion of four days of intensity and spilling forth from my brain excessive amounts of information, some of which I wasn’t even sure was there until the pen hit the paper.  The Reading List looks like this.  My week looked like this:

Tuesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse translation exam.  Translate 2 out of 4 from Set A and likewise from Set B.  Passages taken from the Reading List, of course.  Did the passages from the Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony, Tyrtaeus 9, Callimachus’ Hymn to Athena.

Wednesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse commentary exam.  Theoretically write something clever about 3 out 5 passages from sets A and B.  Only Emilia looks at it and says, “Hey, Set B only has four passages!”  Set A was similar.  Wrote the exam under much stress, wondering what would happen in these unforeseen circumstances.  Furthermore, would they discipline a prof who acts in such bad faith yet who is also published and publishing?  Commented on passages from Euripides’ Bacchae, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and Homer’s Odyssey, book 6 from Set A, and Mimnermus, Sappho 31, and the parabasis of Aristophanes’ Acharnians.

Thursday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose translation exam.  Same format as Greek.  Translated passages from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Book 21, Suetonius Life of the Divine Julius, Cicero, and from a letter of Pliny the Younger.

Friday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose commentary exam.  Same format that Greek was supposed to be, not what Greek was. Thankfully.  Commented on passages from Cornelius Nepos’ Life of Atticus, Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, Livy Book 1, a letter of Cicero to Atticus, Seneca Letter 47, and Cicero’s speech Pro Archia.

And now, I’m done the Reading List!


I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “irrelevant”, maybe even “irrelevant magazine” as a bit of a jibe at Relevant Magazine (“God, Life, and Progressive Culture — Classicists, stay out, you are not “progressive”, nor are you “relevant”!!).*  This thought was brought on by one of the most heart-seizing paragraphs I have read as I observe the cultural illiteracy of the world around me.  In the Afterword to her fantastic and beautiful novel Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin pens the following:

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from Troy, his love affair with the African queen Dido, his visit to the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers.  From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential.  That’s no longer true.  During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into a scholarly specialty.  So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last.  This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world. (p. 273)

This is a paragraph of soul-wrenching sorrow.  I am a Classicist, a lover of the Latin language, who fell for Publius Vergilius Maro at first sight.  That first sight was not Arma virumque cano of Aeneid I but Book II:

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renouare dolorem . . .

They all fell silent and held their mouths, intent.  Then father Aeneas thus rose from his high couch, “Queen, you command me to renew unspeakable sorrow . . .”

Book II recounts the fall of Troy, Trojan Horse and all (“I fear Greeks, even bearing gifts!”).  How appropriate that I would fall for a poet through this tragic destruction and choose to immerse myself in a field that has been called “elitist” by scholarship committees, a field that has been swept aside into the dusty corner of irrelevancy, a field that is the very foundation of the ground upon which we stand, a field that a mere century ago (!!) people were at least moderately acquainted with.

But my Troy has fallen to the oh-so-relevant modernists and postmodernists.  It is aflame as the gods of the age stand tall and proud over it, provoking the “elitist” comments and the comments of, “You know, if you were Chinese, classics would mean . . .”  Well I’m not Chinese!  So leave it alone!  I am a Scots-Canadian, and these are my Classics, overproud PC fool!

Google “Canadian coat of arms”.  What do you see in the top four quadrants?  England, Scotland, Ireland, France.  These are those who founded this nation.  We are a Western nation.  Our laws find their roots in the Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum, for all you non-elitist berks).  Our democratic ideals find their roots in the ἀγορὰ Ἀθηνῶν (OK, so Greek text is wankerish of me — that’s the Athenian Agora).  Our poetry, drama, art, stories, and so much more find their road, one way or another, back to the ancient poets, to Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Ovid, Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Horace.  And I think it’s overstating the case, but I saw a book once that claimed that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  And, though it be different today, the writing of history sprang forth from Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus.

All of this — beauty, wonder, grandeur, excellence, cleverness, the very foundations of what we think, what we say, what we do, what we write — has been swept aside to be the specialty of scholars in favour of “relevance”, in favour of . . .  I don’t even know why the Classics were cast rudely aside.  But they were.

And with that sounded the first death toll of Western culture.

Having abandoned our roots, we are rootless, drifting, dying.  A plant with no roots has no nutrients.  We shall wither and die.  We just don’t realise it yet, because we are revelling in our decadence.

*That’s a lot of punctuation.

You Should Read the Iliad

Jennifer and I had a couple of friends over for dinner a few weeks ago, both of them well-educated readers of poetry and interested in the arts, one a playwright with an MA in English, the other working on a Masters of Theology with a BFA.  When telling them about what I was up to at the moment, I said, “Do you know the basic plot of the Iliad?”

The answer was no.

These friends are not alone, not just in the reading of the Iliad but in the reading of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Greek tragedies, and all sorts of other really cool poetry.  This is a sorry state of affairs that needs to be rectified.  But why?  Why read the Iliad, you may ask?

Outside of the fact that it is the first piece of literature in the Western world and the foundational text for Greek literature and culture, and then also for the Romans to a degree, and thus for all subsequent literature and, and outside of the fact that not reading the Iliad means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life, the reasons for reading the Iliad are many.  I’ll give you twoish.

The  Iliad fulfils my first requirement of any narrative, be it epic poem or modern novel.  It has a good story.  The story moves along, with clever crafting of the narration, from the rage of Achilles to the battlefield, to the affairs of the gods, to the battlefield, to the rage of Achilles, to the walls of Troy.  There is love, battle, hatred, rage, honour, death, life.  There are husbands and wives sharing tender moments.  There are rapacious warriors snatching, clawing, catching at each other — both physically on the battlefield and metaphorically in the councils of the kings.  There are stories within this story, as of Meleager’s tale in Book IX, Western literature’s first mise en abyme.

I could read the Iliad over and over again.  In my third year of university, as I read the story of Odysseus’ and Diomedes’ night raid on Rhesus, I was conscious for the first time in my life of a book that I knew I would want to read again and again.  The same is true for the Odyssey, which I read first, as with the Aeneid, which I read later, and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.  These are my favourite books, full of danger, adventure, and Truth.  Stories worth reading.

The Iliad is one of the world’s great war stories; Roy Thomas, in the foreword to his adaptation for Marvel Comics, says it is the greatest war story.  In The Hinge Factor, Erik Durschmied writes, “I cannot tell if war is really indispensable to the advance of humanity, I only know it is man’s favourite occupation, and that it has dominated all other human activities.”  That is a sadly accurate statement, when we take a look at the centuries of war that stretch out behind us and, inevitably, before us.  Although the Iliad is populated by a warrior aristocracy, it does not glorify war.  Nor is it anti-war, despite what some read into the Hector-Andromache scene in Book VI.  It is simply a poem about war.  There is battle, with all its vicissitudes, brutalities, heroics, nobility, destruction, death, force, rage.  Ever since Cain killed Abel, humanity has been at war.  The Iliad illustrates this reality very well.

The theme of the Iliad is rage.  Thus it begins, “Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος,” — “The Rage of Achilles, son of Peleus — sing it, goddess.” This rage propels all of the action of the story, and through its depiction of war and life surrounding war, the Iliad shows us Truth.  It shows us Truth about humans, about rage, about the uncertainty of life, about honour, about how to treat a guest-friend, about so much.

So read it, this great story of war that’s worth reading over, that tells us about Truth.  Read Fagles’ translation (published by Penguin) or Rieu’s (Penguin Classics).  And revel in the glory of Homer’s poetry.