A crisis of culture is sweeping through society today, affecting marriages, families, and imaginations, according to Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., in a recent story in the National Catholic Register. Bishop Conley, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Christendom College in 2011, calls for a renewal in the study of literature to heal Western culture — an endeavor that has occurred at Christendom since its founding.
In the story, Bishop Conley points to the content over-consumed today as reflective of our cultural crises, whether it be the internet, reality television, or technological devices. These “goods” are abused to the point that very few people read good books anymore, even in the realm of higher education, according to Bishop Conley.
“Modern methods of education too often favor reading as a technical exercise — as a necessary skill to prepare us for a career, instead of as a way to become more fully human…we need to understand the humanity taught by Plato, Augustine and Shakespeare, because we need to understand our own humanity. In the darkness of elective illiteracy, it seems that we can too easily lose our sight, even of ourselves,” says Bishop Conley.
Not every college is succumbing to this fault, however. Christendom is one of the last American colleges still teaching the classical works of Western Civilization, such as Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others to every student, thus giving them the abilities to renew the Western mind.
“Literature opens our imaginations to wonder. Reading good books exposes the contemplative part of our humanity…they can expand our souls and inspire our hearts to strive for greatness,” says Bishop Conley. “All of us who wish to bring forward a renewal of Christian culture in our world…must also begin with books in our hands, being formed in the great tradition of the classical mind. In short, we need to be wise to defeat the father of lies. We can’t propose wise policies if we have not cultivated wisdom and good judgment. And wisdom begins with the wonder of the literary imagination.”
Bishop Conley, who studied the humanities at the University of Kansas, concludes his study by offering a list of books that can help in the renewal of Western culture — almost all of which are studied, read, and enjoyed at Christendom.
In philosophy, students read and contemplate the Dialogues of Plato and St. Augustine’s Confessions, drinking in their wisdom before expanding on their thought in upper-level courses. In English language and literature, students explore Homer’s The Odyssey and examine Shakespeare’s plays — some of which are performed on stage by the Christendom players, giving students the opportunity to understand his thought further.
The study of literature is an historical one as well, and students have the chance to study the Catholic literary revival of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose figures — Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, and Newman — are all crucial to every subject taught at Christendom.
Even as other institutions reject the literature that has formed Western Civilization, Christendom continues to teach these classical works, because the study of them trains students to express themselves coherently and to read critically — skills that are essential for success after college. More than that, it teaches them more about humanity itself, and how the study of good literature can help form a good and holy culture.
To read the entirety of Bishop Conley’s story, visit ncregister.com.