(Disclaimer: I’ve attended several senior thesis defenses this spring and all of them have been impressive. I have a gaggle of seniors over here that continually inspire me. My comments that follow single out one of them, but they are not intended as uneven praise. The student in question is not the teacher’s pet, although she hit a homerun tonight.)
My colleagues and I in the School of Rhetoric have conversations regularly about curriculum. What to adjust, what to add, what to drop; this is the stuff of never ending efforts to improve our pedagogy and to increase our students’ purchase on “the great conversation.” There are three questions we ask ourselves routinely: What do we want our students to remember four days from now? What do we want our students to remember four months from now? What do we want our students to remember forty years from now?
Together these questions create a hierarchy of values, but the last question sifts out the largest themes a student will encounter repeatedly in a New Covenant education. One of those themes was on display this afternoon as I watched Taylor Thornburg (2012) present and defend her senior thesis. Her central claim was that pagan mythology in general – Norse mythology in particular – is itself evidence of general revelation and anticipates the Christ of the gospel. Wow! A large claim.
Not only did she crisscross the ancient stories of Odin, Balder, Loki and Thor, showing that there are universals in human experience that reveal the human condition, she also demonstrated that many of these stories are remarkably suggestive of the Christian story – the story – in startling ways. (Note: Odin’s self-sacrifice on a tree, with spear wounds, but only after betrayal by a close friend; and don’t get Taylor started on dragon-slayers).
But that’s actually not my point; nor was it hers. Her larger claim was to expand on St. Augustine’s assertion that all truth is God’s truth, and that even in pagan literature or scholarship outside the Christian tradition, man images God. Far from avoiding the ancient myths, or Greek and Romans poets, or The Hunger Games for that matter, Christians should engage with culture, and when we discover truth, wherever it may be found, we should embrace it. It increases our appreciation for the greatness of our own Story.
As I sat listening I was gratified, of course, at how she recounted C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity through his own reading of Norse mythology (“This myth can’t be a coincidence! It’s too much like the story those Christians tell!), and by her ready quotes from Chesterton and other authors, all of which I hope she remembers four years from now.
What most pleased me, what certified that this student had internalized one of the most important lessons she has heard in every class in all of her days in our halls, was her recognition that Christ embodies the truth, and that he is often revealed, however dimly, in unexpected places.
It’s an accomplishment for a high school senior to tromp around comfortably in ancient Norse myths; it is quite another to recognize the reflection of one’s own faith in them, and to discover there the human longing for redemption and for the attainment of hope. It is gratifying to see a young person make the connection between faith and life in the context of an academic pursuit.
To Taylor and all her companions in the class of 2012, you’re finishing the course well. These are the lessons we pray remain with you forty years from now.