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Christian Humanism and the Imaginative Mysteries

Dan Hugger at Religion & Liberty Online

Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash

A collection of essays by Hillsdale professor Bradley J. Birzer explores the moral imagination of the great Christian humanists to reflect on literature and film—and, of course, Batman.

A young Kansas boy moves between oil derricks, wheat fields, and abandoned buildings. He stops for only one thing: the hose. Not any ordinary hose, but a most extraordinary hose. Its contents pour forth not in trickles, streams, or torrents but gush in words, images, and pages. Not a fire hose run from a hydrant, but a library hose. It runs not from any particular library, but many places at once. While the Wiley Elementary School Library and the Hutchinson Public Library were reliable fonts, none was more important than that found at home, where his mother lovingly nourished him from shelves, coffee tables, and the nightstand beside his bed.

In time, the miraculous happened. Filled with this torrent of books and words, he began to disgorge words, words, words! Papers for school and arguments for the debate team consumed him. Research was both an intellectual puzzle and an art. He would grow to become what Russell Kirk called a “Bearer of the Word,” a dedicated man “whose first obligation is to the Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material.”

This knight-errant “Bearer of the Word” from the plains of Kansas is the author of the new book Mythic Realms: The Moral Imagination in Literature & Film published by Angelico Press. His name is Bradley J. Birzer and he is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and professor of history at Hillsdale College. On the surface the book is a mere collection of essays and lectures, the bulk of which were previously published in various outlets (including the Acton Institute) and orated to varied audiences. Much more, however, lies beneath.

The depths of this collection are clear from the book’s concise but penetrating introduction, which opens with Russell Kirk’s provocative definition: “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily, for mere words are tools which break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” Kirk’s conviction is that images give us not just poetry but great scientific, philosophical, and spiritual insights. Birzer argues that this definition is shared by a long line of the West’s most profound thinkers, from the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome down through “Cicero, St. Augustine, Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis.”

Birzer calls this tradition “Christian humanism,” and this book, while able to stand on its own, is a self-conscious companion to his 2019 Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West. Beyond Tenebrae sought to define “Christian humanism” by exploring the life and thought of its leading figures; in Mythic Realms, however, he deploys the moral imagination found running through them to reflect on literature and film in this century and the last.

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