The Purpose of Poetic Truth
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”- C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
My husband and I have a rather bad habit: we love to buy books for one another. While, as teachers and bibliophiles, this may not seem like a habit we need to ‘kick’ anytime soon, the bookshelves and closets and even the basements of our parents’ homes have had about all they can take. But when we come across books that relate to both teaching and our love of the classics, how can we resist? Last year, as I was in the thick of teaching The Odyssey to my 9th grade students, Clinton purchased Louis Markos’ From Achilles to Christ to aid me as I made fresh connections between the seemingly pagan works of Homer and our journey as Christians. This quote, found on the back cover of Markos’ lovely collection of essays, captures an idea that C.S. Lewis himself has espoused in his fiction and essays – that the “characters, themes, and symbols within these myths both foreshadow and find their fulfillment in the story of Jesus Christ- the ‘myth made fact’” (Markos).
According to David Goodwin, president of the Association of Classical & Christian Schools, these intuitions of C.S. Lewis have made him something of a “patron saint” of classical education. Goodwin is not exaggerated in his designation- indeed, allusions and praises of Lewis’ works and ideas were part of almost every talk I attended at the ACCS Conference in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this summer. How have Lewis, or other “saints” of classical education- such as Aristotle or Dante or John Milton- succeeded in altering lives some decades, centuries, or millennia after their works could have faded into obscurity? Grant Horner, professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at the Master’s College, believes it is the poeialetheia or ‘poetic truth’ found in these great works that make them relevant to students and teachers of the classics as well as all people.
In spite of its seeming eloquence, poeialetheia is not, in fact, a Latin word. Horner, who is also a scholar of Latin, was so emboldened by his studies that he created his own word, which could be loosely translated as ‘poetic truth’ but is better described as the concept of ‘making-the-not-forgetting’. How does ‘making the not forgetting’ differ from the much simpler idea of ‘remembering’? In his final plenary session, Horner explained that we as lifelong learners and participants in the body of Christ are not simply responsible for recalling our Christian heritage, but for participating in the remembering. We must make, or create, writing songs or poems, sculpting and painting great art, and retelling the stories of the Bible, of martyrs, of great people of faith who have helped us arrive at this very moment.
As a teacher of English Literature at Bloomfield Christian School, I will strive for poeialetheia each day in the classroom because I know that my students are preparing themselves for something greater. In order for them to participate in the great task of ‘making the not forgetting,’ they must first learn the language of these stories so they can determine whether a work of literature points toward God’s truth. Students at BCS are uniquely situated early on to excel at understanding the origins, metaphors, allusions, and imagery found in Greek myths, medieval legends, Renaissance poetry, and even contemporary fiction. Their ability to find the truth or identify deception in what they read will become increasingly invaluable as the secular world seeks to distort truth.
Reading classical and canonical texts is definitely not easy. But as heirs of an eternal kingdom, students are tasked with this work because “endurance produces character and character produces hope” (Romans 5:4 ESV). The hope for redemption and glory is a timeless pursuit that is doubtlessly enriched by our understanding of the past. So I suppose we must once again follow C.S. Lewis’ advice: the only palliative for this life “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books” (“On the Reading of Old Books”).
—Sarah Collister, BCS Teacher