So, the first thing you need to do in order to get the most of our Great Lent Reading Project is to buy the book. That may seem fairly obvious, but, hey, you’d be surprised how many people attend the Pascha Book Study without having read any of the material—and we always love to have folks participate whether they’ve actually read the book or not, but you really do get a whole lot more out of the experience if you have done your best to get through the book.
The book is called Discerning the Mystery, and, yes, $27.00 is more than you want to pay for a small paperback, but the book is only published by a private press called 8th Day Press. And we should be really thankful that the folks at 8th Day have kept the book in print all these years (it was originally published in 1983), because it has become one of the most important books on epistemology and Holy Scripture written in the last century. In fact, for Christmas, I received a copy of a book entitled Scripture as Real Presence; it was published last year; it’s by a popular Bible scholar, Hans Boersma. And who does Hans quote throughout the book? Father Andrew Louth and his book, Discerning the Mystery. So, this is going to be a book that you will want to keep and pass on to others.
But if you have ‘dipped’ into the book, you know that it’s not going to be an easy read. So, here’s the next thing you need to do to get ready for our Great Lent Reading Project: Get a dictionary. And when I say dictionary, I mean the biggest, fattest, most comprehensive dictionary you can find. You may very well have one lying around the house (or holding up a wobbly piece of furniture), but you can pick one up super cheap at Half Price Books. However, do not use one of those pocket paperback dictionaries, and, under no circumstances, should you use your phone. Pocket paperback dictionaries will only frustrate you because they won’t have a good many of the words that you need to look up. Your phone will just make you stupid, because phone dictionaries treat definitions as if they are some sort of mathematical equations, and that’s just not how words work. So just buy or re-locate that big, nerdy dictionary.
Now what your phone will be useful for is looking up the people that Father Louth mentions. For example, in the Introduction, Father Andrew basically gives us a run-down on what’s in the book, and he talks about the thinkers with whom he will be interacting. He specifically mentions Leslie Houlden, Michael Polyani, Gabriel Marcel, F.J.A. Hort, Giambattista Vico, Wilhelm Dilthey, T.F. Torrance, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The cool thing about your phone is that you can look up each of those people and find out a little bit about them, and you can do all that is just a few minutes.
But that brings us to the fundamental question that everyone is asking: Why in the world are we reading this book? Why can’t we do another Laurus or Jayber Crow?
That’s a really good question. For the answer, let’s turn to the movies. The Devil Wears Prada is not an especially good film, but there is a scene in it where Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway about how the fashion world works. Here’s the speech:
‘This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.’
That’s also a pretty good description of how the intellectual world works, because the truth is, when it comes to the life of the mind, most of us are like the Anne Hathaway character in that movie: we get our ideas from ‘Casual Corner’ writers like—well, like Rod Dreher; we never ever interact with the Oscar de la Renta’s or Yves Saint Laurent’s of the intellectual world, because we’ve been taught to think that we’re not smart enough to do that. And, okay, maybe we’re not just too terribly smart, but we can look up the words and google the references and at least follow along. In other words, rather than have our ideas ‘selected’ for us, we can take responsibility for what is in our minds and go to the trouble to listen to folks like Hort and Dilthey and Gadamer and Father Louth, because what we end up thinking (or what others want us to think) has a tremendous impact on our lives and our culture.
For example, in the first page of the Introduction, Father Andrew states that we live in a world where “all concern with truth has been relinquished to the sciences, and to those branches of learning that can successfully adopt the methods of the sciences”. That perspective is something that we encounter everyday at our jobs, in the media, in our conversations with others: something is true if it has been studied and quantified and if the results are presented to us in statistics or graphs or poll percentages.
Since Father Andrew was teaching in a university when he wrote this book, he talks a great deal in the opening chapters about the difference between the humanities (subjects like history, music, literature, art, language) and the sciences (subjects like math, biology, geology, physics), but the difference goes way beyond the academic world, and it especially shows up in the Church because the Church has historically used what Father Andrew calls the humanities in the way she approaches the spiritual life—and if that branch of knowledge is not a reliable guide to truth—if truth really doe requires experiments and measurable outcomes—then we are in big, big trouble.
A great many of our Protestant and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters (and, actually, a few Orthodox, as well) believe that we are, indeed, in big, big trouble. But Father Louth’s book shows us that’s not the case. And by working out way together through this book, we can begin to understand those discussions and disagreements that are going on way, way above our heads, and we can begin to be more discerning about our own thought patterns and more confident about what the Church has always taught.
So, your homework: Buy the book. Get a dictionary. Go ahead and read the Introduction, look up the words you don’t know (don’t guess; look up the words), google the names with which you are unfamiliar. You can do this; it will even be fun.