Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mute Inglorious Miltons, Arise!

Thursday I began my third reading of Augustine’s Confessions. Among the many trains of thought the magnificent spiritual autobiography elicited in me, longing for Christian eloquence held a prominent position. “Where are the Augustines of today?” I asked, not for the first time in my life. “Where are the Miltons? The Johnsons? The Lewises? Where is Christian eloquence?”

I woke up to find that today marks the 340th anniversary of Milton’s death, and the question arose again. It’s not an entirely fair question, of course. No period other than Milton’s had a Milton. But I’d love to have a Christian culture that values poetry and strives to rise to Milton’s level even if it only reaches halfway. Shoot for the stars; you might reach the moon.

No physical reason precludes a broad river of eloquent Christian authors or an ocean of literate, thoughtful Christians to receive them; the aptitude runs latent in our DNA. Thomas Gray wondered if some “mute inglorious Milton” lay in his churchyard; if so, only demographic conditions kept him silenced. I have to look for a sociological cause for the dearth, and consequently I have to conclude that today’s Christians aren’t known for producing great writers because today’s Church doesn’t value writing. Asked where the C. S. Lewises of today are, Lewis scholar Alister McGrath replied that the Church had to start training children to grow up to be the Lewises of tomorrow. The State sure won’t do it. American public schools no longer expect young people to spell correctly because they don’t want to stifle the kiddos’ creativity. (The plural of kiddo has no e. I looked it up. After all, I didn’t want to pull a Quayle in the middle of a diatribe on orthography. Oh, and by the way, while I’m already in a parenthesis, I’ll extend it to say that if you’re a Christian and don’t know who Thomas Gray is or that he had some thoughts in a churchyard or why he chose Milton as his exemplar, your situation proves my point. The government and, much more importantly, the Church failed you.)

I could say it all again with regard to art, architecture, and music composition. Oh, sure, today’s American churches all have music. But popular-style Christian composers are supported by record sales, not by the offering plate. And creativity is most definitely frowned upon in the American Church as a whole. I love some contemporary Christian worship music (I’m actually listening to some as I type), but I know too much Christian music from the last two millennia to be fooled into thinking that future music historians will see the last thirty years of CCM as – I can’t finish the sentence. Future music historians won’t even be aware of today’s Christian music. It will flit through the lives of hundreds of millions of people and yet leave no mark on history deeper than that of a feather brushed against a stone. I like Matt Redman’s songs just fine. But Dan Quayle is no John Kennedy, and Matt Redman is no J. S. Bach.

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