Humanities Newsletter - January 2022
Welcome to 2022 and the first edition of the Humanities newsletter. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas break and are looking forward to a new year. After the last two years, it can be challenging to look with hope at what lies ahead. At the start of this year (and every year) I am reminded of how much I need to trust God’s providential and sovereign control over all things. He has led us this far, and he will continue to lead. I hope you enjoy my Epiphany and literature articles.
Mr. Toby Coffman
Humanities Night - April 13
The first-ever Humanities Night will be held on April 13 from 6:00-8:00pm in the Performance Hall of the Valor Center. This will be a special time to recognize the students in the program for their exemplary achievements, provide a venue for parents and students to interact across grade levels, and, well, who isn’t looking for a chance to get dressed up on a Wednesday night in April? More details will follow in subsequent newsletters, but we are excited to get everyone together and celebrate!
A Song for Epiphany
January 6 completed the 12 days of Christmas. My family ardently follows the full 12-day feast. One of our favorite activities is picking a family from our church or homeschool group and giving them a gift each day corresponding to the 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' song.
For example, the 'five golden rings' this year took the form of a freshly cut pineapple; 'three French hens' yielded a souffle. We sneak up to the front door, drop the gift, and ring the bell. On the 12th day, we ring the bell and wait with the final gift–Drumstick ice-cream cones for the '12 drummers drumming' –and celebrate together.
I love the celebration and love capping it every year with a robust singing of my favorite Epiphany hymn, “We Three Kings.” Epiphany is the name in the church calendar for the final day of Christmas and a chance to remember the three wise men/kings/magicians/astrologers that God saw fit to testify to the birth of his son. I love most especially that each gift–gold, frankincense, and myrrh–corresponded with each of Christ’s major roles–gold for a king; frankincense for a god; myrrh for a dead man. Enjoy the lyrics of We Three Kings by John Henry Hopkins and follow this link to listen to an otherworldly performance.
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
O, Star of wonder, Star of night
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown him again.
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a cold stone tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise,
King and god and sacrifice.
Peals through the earth and skies.
Read Outside Your Culture (and Time)
This article continues the series begun in August discussing one of the focal points of the Humanities program: organizing a disorganized world. This principle--reading outside your culture (and time)--might seem tangential to that focus but is an indelible part of what we seek to achieve in the program. One of the most destructive features of modern culture is our presentism, what C.S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery.” We believe that the only valuable knowledge to be gleaned about our world is contemporary knowledge. We, therefore, downgrade (if not outright reject) old things as incapable of instilling knowledge. Reading outside our culture and time helps prevent this tendency and organizes our world by teaching us the wisdom of our forebears and of people who come from vastly different cultures with a vastly different set of assumptions regarding the world. To help make this clear, I would like to provide a reading of a scene from classical literature that helps show the vitality of ancient ideas in navigating a modern world.
One of my favorite scenes in all of literature--ancient, modern, and in-between--comes in Book VI of Homer’s Iliad. The Trojan hero, Hector, has returned briefly to Troy from the battlefield on the plains. Part of his mission is to, ahem, hector his malingering brother Paris into returning to the fight; another part of his intention in returning to sacred Troy is to see his wife and small son. That boy, born Scamandrius but called by the Trojans Astyanax (more on this later), was born during the siege of Troy by the invading Greek forces. He has never known peace and is fated to die at the hands of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.
When Hector returns from the battle to his home, clad in his armor and his head ensconced in a helmet with a horsehair crest, he terrifies his small child. In one of the most touching moments in the poem the great warrior raises his son in his arms and kisses him and offers the following prayer to Zeus:
Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
May be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
Strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
And one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’--
When he comes home from battle bearing the bloody gear
Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war--
A joy to his mother’s heart.
It is a stunning scene and there is too much to unpack in this small space. I am struck both by the similarities between my prayers for my own children and the manner in which Hector prays for his son. I, too, pray that my children will be strong and brave and that my boys would be better men than their father. But those last three lines are stunning and where our prayers for our sons part ways. For, how will Astyanax prove himself a better man than his father according to Hector’s prayer? By killing a lot of people.
And it can be easy to judge Hector by our twenty-first century standards in moments like this. The closing of his prayer seems incongruent with the tender affection he displays for his son. And yet, two things prevent me from judging Hector and his desires for his son.
1. The boy’s name. Astyanax means “protector of the city.” Remember, this is not his birth name but the name given him by the Trojans. They need someone to grow up and protect them--it is their fondest wish.
2. There are 50,000 Greeks camped at the Trojan gates. What Troy needs in this moment is not kind men who pay their taxes on time but warriors. It needs these warriors to come back bearing the bloody gear of dead Greeks lest the Greeks overwhelm their walls and pillage their town (as happens in the world between the Iliad and the Odyssey and is recounted in graphic detail in Virgil’s Aeneid).
These two factors make me wonder what my own prayers for my sons might be if I found myself in a position similar to Hector. Further, and most pertinently, it helps me appreciate the sea-change in morality brought about by the spread of Christianity. That we can blanch at Hector’s words has far more to do with the goodness of Christ and the message of peace among men of disparate geographical and cultural backgrounds that his church has preached at her best moments for 2,000 years than it does with any other factor.
This scene illustrates at the same time how badly the ancient world needed noble warriors like Hector, but how much more desperately it needed a man who as a sheep before his shearers was silent so he opened not his mouth. The ancient world needed men like Hector to defend it, but it needed a man-god like Christ to save it. Hector’s prayer falls on deaf ears. His city falls, his son is brutally killed, and his wife becomes the concubine of the man who slaughtered their son. And so it goes on. Until one night in ancient Palestine. . .