Reading About the Great Conversation

In preparation for teaching 12th-grade literature to Nate (and some to Sombai), I’ve been reviewing my collection of books on the Great Books of Western Civilization. This process has reacquainted me with the thoughts and discussions of my college days as an English major. This reunion with literature and analytical thought brings me joy as I meet again old friends and a few cringes from works I disliked.

This exploration has also revealed to how little I have read. During four years of college, I only experienced the tip of the iceberg, and that was focused on British literature. (I liked the primary American literature professor as a person, but I struggled with his teaching style. So, I avoided his classes after taking two of them. Thus, I only attended one American literature course.)

During this past school year, I increased my exposure to American literature by reading along with Nate’s syllabus for his online video American literature class. The Bob Jones University teacher’s manual often fascinated me with its insight and its drawing out contrasts between Christianity and the worldview of various authors through U.S. history.

All my adult life, the historical development of ideas has intrigued me. Thus, I greatly enjoyed this BJU course that takes a chronological path of instruction, demonstrating the shift of the American mind from Puritan theism to atheistic modernism. The shift in worldview in a culture develops more quickly with the intelligentsia than among the general population. As time has progressed, however, Americans, and Westerners in general, have adopted the liberal views of the cultural elites and rejected the Judeo-Christian worldview that once stood as the bedrock of Western civilization.

The Eternal Argument: A Framework for Understanding Western Literature and Culture by R. Robin Finley, which I recently read, addresses this progression. This author offers the premise that all great books of Western civilization participate in one great argument. This discussion debates two positions: 1) “There is a God and He rules over flawed mankind by giving us rules by which to live” and 2) “There is no God so people decide what’s good and what’s evil, and human nature can arrive at the rules” (p. 3). Only by recognizing this overarching argument, states Finley, can readers better understand Western literature.

Just as it is easier to put together a jigsaw puzzle by studying the box top (unless you’re my husband. He thinks that’s cheating.), studying literature is easier when readers know how the written work fits into the larger framework of the Great Conversation of Western civilization. The framework for a given work, book, essay, poem, or play, is the cultural setting in which it was written and the worldview of the author.

I’m eager to explore the Eternal Argument with my children this coming school year, and I plan to continue my own education as well.

Other books I am reviewing to develop a syllabus for next year’s literature study (and beyond) included:

  • Great Books of the Christian Tradition by Terry W. Glaspey (includes secular works as well)
  • How to Read a Book : The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
  • How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire
  • Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (Christian point of view)
  • The Twelve Trademarks of Great Literature: Essays, Stories and Poems by J. F. Baldwin (Christian point of View)
  • The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer

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