Were we led all this way for birth or death?: Advent 2022

In the first episode of the Advent 2022 series exploring Advent & Christmas poetry from the past, I meditate on T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. 

This week the ancient season of Advent has begun. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning a coming or arrival. Advent waits upon the coming or arrival of Jesus Christ. I’m going to shockingly quote Wikipedia here, because it actually states the meaning of Advent succinctly and well: “the season of Advent in the Christian calendar anticipates the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives: the physical nativity in Bethlehem, the reception of Christ in the heart of the believer, and the eschatological Second Coming.” In other words, during Advent we wait for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Incarnate God, we anticipate his transformative entry into our hearts and our ongoing sanctification, and we declare our expectation that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, as we repeat in the Creed. Advent is multilayered. 

This is my justification for kicking off this series with an Epiphany poem. Yes, that’s right—a poem about the wise men. But here’s why I am starting with T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi.” Christians are pilgrims, wanderers in the world, not at home but on a journey. Advent comes from the same root word as adventure, and we are these adventurers, pilgrims on a slow, meandering, strange trip home. “The Journey of the Magi” is not a cheery Christmas poem. It lacks joyful shepherds, the anticipation of a beautiful baby, beautiful Mary and trusting Joseph. This is your welcoming space if you’re not feeling particularly joyful in your preparations for Christmas, if you’re feeling far from home, like a broken wanderer, or if you’re on your own particular and confusing journey for the Christ child. 

Listen now on the podcasting platform of your choice, including Apple and Spotify. And as always, I deeply appreciate your reviews and ratings–they help other listeners to find Old Books with Grace and are a source of encouragement to me as well!

Puritan Prayers with Robert Elmer

As a medievalist, I must admit to being slightly suspicious of Puritans. So I was eager to chat with and learn from Robert Elmer, compiler of a beautiful selection of prayers by Puritan thinkers. In this episode, I welcome Robert, the editor of Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans and Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church, the first two books in the Prayers of the Church series from Lexham Press. We talk about the beauty of these prayers from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries and about Robert’s own process of finding and selecting these historical and powerful prayers. 

Robert Elmer is the editor of Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans and Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church, the first two books in the Prayers of the Church series from Lexham Press. He’s also the author of more than 50 books of Christian fiction, devotion, and apologetics—for younger readers as well as adults. He and his family live in Lynden, Washington.

Listen on the podcasting platform of your choice, including Apple and Spotify.

On Beauty and Literature with Sarah Clarkson

Beauty is just as significant to our spiritual and moral lives as truth and goodness. Sarah Clarkson has often found this beauty in literature. Grace welcomes Sarah, author of This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks Into Our Darkness, to discuss the intersections between story, beauty, and suffering. Along the way, some very recognizable names come up as sources of profound beauty in literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, L.M. Montgomery, George Eliot, and more… Listen on the podcasting platform of your choice!

Sarah Clarkson

Sarah Clarkson is a writer who loves to explore the intersection of story, suffering, and beauty. She studied theology (BTh, MSt) at Oxford and has authored a number of books, most recently This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks Into Our Darkness. She mulls life and books in her newsletter, A Note From Sarah, presents seminars on great novels and theology, and hosts read-aloud fellowships on Patreon and Instagram. She can usually be found with either a book or a cup of tea in hand in the Oxford vicarage she shares with her Anglican priest husband, Thomas, and their three children. You can find her at sarahclarkson.com.

If you enjoyed this episode, I’d really appreciate it if you rated and/or reviewed on your favorite podcasting platform. Thank you!

The Delights of Dickens with Gina Dalfonzo

Grace welcomes Gina Dalfonzo, editor of The Gospel in Dickens (Plough Publishing House) and founder and editor of Dickensblog, to chat all things Charles Dickens. What is the appeal of this wordy writer (whom, as Gina reminds us, was NOT paid by the word)? Join Gina and Grace for a fun conversation discussing why we love and return to Charles Dickens over and over despite his foibles and flaws.

Gina Dalfonzo is the author of Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis and One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church (both for Baker Books), and editor of The Gospel in Dickens (Plough Publishing House). She is a writer and editor at Christ and Pop Culture, and founder and editor of Dickensblog. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Christianity Today, Plough Quarterly, The Weekly Standard, Fathom, and elsewhere. She publishes a biweekly book review newsletter, “Dear, Strange Things,” at http://dearstrangethings.substack.com. She enjoys playing the piano, gardening, and watching figure skating and classic movies.

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If you enjoy it, I’d appreciate it so much if you rated or reviewed on the platform of your choice. It helps others to find the show and helps me out as well!

The Beauty of Old English with Eleanor Parker

Recording this episode was a bit of a trip. Dr. Eleanor Parker was very gracious with me as my microphone failed to do its ONE JOB–recording. Oh well! We still had a delightful time discussing Old English words, the Anglo-Saxon calendar year, and what she recommends for reading if you’re interested in Old English poetry.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford. She is the author of Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (2018), Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England (2022), and Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (2022). She has also written for History Today and is the creator of the Clerk of Oxford blog.

Dr. Eleanor Parker

Take a listen on the podcasting platform of your choice, including Apple & Spotify. If you enjoy this episode, I’d very much appreciate it if you took the time to rate and review wherever you listen. It helps other folks to find this podcast! Thank you!

The Love of Learning with Zena Hitz

Season three of Old Books With Grace has arrived!

On the season premiere of Old Books With Grace, Grace welcomes Dr. Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, tutor at St. John’s College, and founder of the Catherine Project. Why is it important to love learning for its own sake and not instrumentalize it? How can we cultivate an intellectual life? What does Augustine of Hippo mean by curiositas? Hear Grace and Dr. Hitz’s thoughts on these questions and more…

Listen on the podcasting platform of your choice.

Dr. Zena Hitz

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where she has the joy of teaching great books of mathematics, science, and literature, as well as in her home fields of classics and philosophy. She recieved an M.Phil. in Classics from Cambridge University (1996) and a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton University (2005). Her academic work has focused upon Aristotle. More recently, Dr. Hitz has offered public defense for learning for its own sake, including in her book Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, 2020). Her essays on the importance of humanistic study have appeared in Commonweal, First Things, New Statesman, Washington Post, Womankind and elsewhere. In 2020, Dr. Hitz founded the Catherine Project, a non-profit which hosts serious conversations on great books, open to everyone. Her new book for general audiences, A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life (Cambridge, 2023), gives an account of the Christian ascetical tradition and its importance in everyday life.

Were we led all this way for birth or death?: Advent 2022 Old Books With Grace

In the first episode of the Advent 2022 series exploring Advent & Christmas poetry from the past, Dr. Grace Hamman meditates on T.S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi and our status as pilgrims in the world. Read The Journey of the Magi.
  1. Were we led all this way for birth or death?: Advent 2022
  2. Praying with Puritans with Robert Elmer
  3. On Beauty and Literature with Sarah Clarkson
  4. The Delights of Dickens with Gina Dalfonzo
  5. The Beauty of Old English with Eleanor Parker

God’s Love, Thomas Aquinas, and Tradition with Fritz Bauerschmidt

In this last episode of the season, Grace welcomes Dr. Fritz Bauerschmidt to chat about reading difficult authors of the past, like Thomas Aquinas, the love of God as the central feature of Christianity, and the flexibility and strength of tradition.

Listen on the podcasting platform of your choice! If you enjoyed this episode, I would so appreciate it if you subscribed, rated, or reviewed the podcast. It helps others find it and it helps me out as well!

Frederick Christian (Fritz) Bauerschmidt is Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland, specializing in medieval and modern Catholic theology, and a deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, assigned to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He is the author of several books, most recently The Love That is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith (Eerdmans 2020), The Essential Summa Theologiae: A Reader and Commentary (Baker Academic 2021), and How Beautiful the World Could Be: Christian Reflections on the Everyday (Eerdmans 2022).

C.S. Lewis and Medieval Humanism with Chris Armstrong

Grace welcomes Dr. Chris Armstrong to the podcast to talk about his book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, and think through medieval Christian humanism’s influence on C.S. Lewis, and how some of these medieval ideas might help think more creatively and faithfully about community, faith, and history today.

Listen on the podcast platform of your choice, including Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Dr. Chris R Armstrong is an educator, academic entrepreneur, author, editor, and church historian (Duke Ph.D., Gordon-Conwell M.A.). He currently serves as Program Fellow in Faith, Work, and Economics for the Kern Family Foundation (WI). He taught from 2004 to 2013 at Bethel Seminary (MN). From 2014 to 2018 he served as faculty member and founding director of the Opus faith & vocation initiative at Wheaton College (IL). His Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C S Lewis (Brazos, 2016) retrieves the Christian humanism of the Middle Ages. Chris serves as Senior Editor of Christian History magazine and blogs at gratefultothedead.com. He enjoys playing tabletop games with friends, listening to jazz, and improving his jazz piano skills.

Breaking Medieval Stereotypes with Beth Allison Barr

There’s a new podcast episode out today! Dr. Beth Allison Barr, author of Making Biblical Womanhood, is here and we are talking about history and how it shapes us, resisting the urge to impose our norms and ideas back onto the past, about medieval women, gender-bending medieval saints, good places to start reading medieval texts, and more fascinating topics…

Beth Allison Barr (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is James Vardaman Professor of History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She recently served as president of the Conference on Faith and History (2018-2021) and is an active supporter of Christians for Biblical Equality. Barr is a regular contributor to The Anxious Bench, the popular Patheos website on religious history, and has written for Christianity Today, the Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Dallas Morning News, Sojourners, and Baptist News Global. Her work has been featured by NPR and The New Yorker. She is also a Baptist pastor’s wife and the mom of two great kids.

Listen here on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other platform of your choice.

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Lust & Chastity

Yes, it’s the very last episode in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, and it’s time to talk about lust and chastity. I promise not to be like the P.E. teacher in the teen classic movie, Mean Girls (or really in every teen movie) who just is like “don’t have it!” Despite the popularity amongst many Christians of abstinence-only sex education, there’s a very good reason why in the ancient tradition, the remedy to lust is not abstinence, but chastity, which is quite different. It’s also not modesty, take note, and I’m going to think about that more in a minute.

What is lust? Lust is disordered sexual desire: inordinate, for the wrong people, at the wrong place and time, obsessive or possessive, or sexual desire ordered towards power or pleasure and not loving intimacy, and so on… Medieval English folk usually called it lechery. 

Today we live in a funny complex relationship with lust. It’s the vice that the church has now been fixated on for a while, especially regarding the so-called “culture wars.” DeYoung points out how the church often centers sex in its discussion of “culture,” when in reality scriptures so often point us towards greed or idolatry in discussions of culture. Curiously, many Christians enthusiastically defend an unabashedly lecherous ex-president. Christians are now dealing with (or worse, avoiding dealing with) the very real, very awful pain of sexual disorder rampant in all corners of the church, from clerical child abuse to #metoo to the pornography epidemic, human trafficking, and abortion. There are very different sexual ethics on offer out there, that state their claims to being healthy, ethical and moral (and these are clearly simplifications but give the broad contours).

Jesus himself discusses lust and the actions that ensue from lust very little, other than his famous suggestion to cut out your eye when it leads you to lust. So we know it’s bad, and Jesus thinks it is bad, but it’s not high up on his list of priorities. Paul talks a little more about it, but his words are famously rather vague and have inspired a whole empire of treatises and argument that people follow in wildly varying ways, as we can see.

The ancient scheme of the vices reflects this lesser importance (though not lesser pain); I haven’t been ordering them willy-nilly in this series, but following the ancient order in which pride, anger, etc. begin the vices, and gluttony and lust end them. Here’s why they ordered the vices that way: these vices of the body can be easier to spot and easier to supplant with virtuous habits than those very spiritual vices that begin the list. Moreover, it’s often pride or anger or avarice lingering behind those bodily vices like lust and gluttony themselves that are wreaking the devastation. But we have a hard time grasping this, because the bitter decaying fruits of lust are so painfully obvious in ways that pride’s are not. We see the destruction of marriage and community through adultery with horrific clarity. We rage and weep over the abused child or woman and the long-term spiritual, mental, and physical damage that follows. The church dimly recognizes that cultural attitudes about sex outside the church are pretty rotten, and less fully acknowledges the rottenness comes from within, too.

So in this episode, I want to think about the core issue of our attitudes about our bodies and desire rather than specific acts. The basics: sex itself is not bad, just like the other bodily pleasures of food and drink, material goods, etc. It’s a gift from God. Full stop. Yet like all gifts, we can elevate it, desire it, shape our lives around it in a way inconducive to our full flourishing as created persons in community. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Like nitroglycerin, it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts.” Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung asks a great question: “How should our sexual desires serve our full humanness?” (195) I like her word “serve.” Sexual desire neither signifies our full humanity nor undermines it. In its proper place, our bodies and their functions and pleasures are more gifts that can help us become more human, more like Jesus in learning to love a person. Sex is interpersonal, social, spiritual and physical. Lust as bodily desire that has become out of joint is a barrier to us truly loving Jesus, our neighbor, and ourselves, while chastity, its virtuous counterpoint, heals and builds bridges. Chastity fosters loving families (through both bonds of blood and friendship) and forges bonds of intimacy and joy.

Lust, like gluttony, grows as you feed it. The less one curbs lust, the more it overwhelms a person. Again, pornography is an instructive example. The increasing violence of pornography alongside its increasing availability is well-documented. One needs more and more to feel turned on, to reach some form of satiation outside of true intimacy. This excess-oriented tendency of lust is also why medieval writers encourage being careful of the friends and acquaintances you keep in their consideration of lust. If you’re egging one another on in exploits of lust, unsurprisingly, you’re going to keep struggling even if you’re not acting upon it. If you’re consuming extremely provocative or explicit TV shows or books on a regular basis, those desires are going to be easily, regularly accessible in your mind. This looks different for all types of people, of course, but it’s the practical knowledge about lust that medieval people share with us. 

Importantly, as the medieval penitential writers knew very well, the actions of lust are far down the list of lusty items. The first and foremost lustful movements happen in your mind. Like gluttony, lust is “reductive” and “strips sexual pleasure-seeking down to individual gratification, apart from a love relationship to a person” (DeYoung). Lust narrows a person down to a pleasure receptacle. You don’t need to know anything about them, you don’t need to care for them, they don’t even need to be in the room with you. This is obviously the premise of pornography. Objectification is also why a consent-based ethics of sex is not enough. Broader secular culture teaches that anything and everything sexual is permissible and ethically cool, as long as you receive and give consent. Christine Emba’s excellent recent article in the Washington Post lays out very clearly some of the problems with centering all sexual ethics on consent, and the fuzziness of consent. This centering doesn’t do enough to prevent objectification in our pursuit of sexual pleasure.

DeYoung has a great expression of lust versus love that I want to quote at length:

 …because human beings find true fulfillment in love for God and for each other, sexual expressions of love require real persons. They demand a fully human encounter, not simply a useful or pleasurable exchange. They require the freedom to give ourselves to each other, and the willingness to graciously welcome another person in…To strip human sexuality of its link to love can make access to sexual pleasure safer and easier, and ostensibly and superficially under our control, perhaps, but the safety we seek in prideful self-provision also walls us off from what we really need.”

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices

The mechanics of lust are fairly simple. The writer of The Book of Vices and Virtues notes that lust begins in “foolish looking” or “foolish listening.” It escalates to foolish talking and touching. But more so, the foolish looking and hearing, the ill-advised sensory input, ends in a receptive mind, a mind ready to “delight privately,” as the book says, in these sights and sounds. Though this is simple, there’s a lot here to digest.

First, the Book’s choice of “foolish.” Lust so often starts out with foolishness. There are a lot of statistics out there about pornography, the ultimate self-gratifying, person-reducing pleasure seeking. People tend to watch porn when they’re stressed, tired, or struggling. Unsurprisingly, this is also often how affairs start: marriage feels like a chore or burden, you’re super stressed, you’re seeking some kind of escape or outlet. We are more open to folly and bad decisions when we are not taking care of our bodies and minds, or when we are avoiding the real challenges of faithfulness. 

Secondly, ready to “delight privately” is worth unravelling a bit. Private delight is at the core of lust. It’s the pleasure that is yours alone and foremost, secret, not to share. It’s putting your sexual desires before all other considerations. In contrast, intimacy entails shared delight. This desire for “private delight” is also why, despite many years of absolute loads of Christian fixation on modesty, modesty is not the remedy to lust. A mind ready for private delight will take anything—a Victorian ankle emerging from swathes of massively modest dress—for its solitary pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in modesty for both men and women, in a wide variety of shapes and forms (like all virtues, it’s not one-size-fits-all, shorts shorter than a four inch inseam are immodest, hard and fast rules). The idiotic refrain “modest is hottest” reveals the paucity of how a lot of Christians treat modesty and the sick core of lust’s private delights. It short-circuits modesty back into sexual gratification, a man’s sexual pleasure in a woman’s dress. A shortsighted emphasis on modesty also places the blame for other’s lechery onto the person whom they are depersonalizing. This is the old, disgusting idea that by showing skin a woman was “asking for it.” If modesty defined narrowly as showing less skin were the antidote to lust, however, no sexual excess would have existed from about 1830-1920, a period where women showed very little of their bodies indeed. Yet we know it did. 

As humans, we are called to be formed into people who view others not as objects for self-gratification or even self-fulfillment (how many see marriage now), but as other beloved ones. Sexual self-gratification and sexual shame, both rooted in lust, makes it very hard for us to see the belovedness of ourselves and others. I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, which depicts the absolute ravages of shame after fornication. Arthur Dimmesdale is destroyed by his secret sexual sins—not by the sex act itself, but by his terror of revelation and his massive guilt. The affair between himself and Hester Prynne is even never discussed in the book.  Very often Christians live more on the Dimmesdale side of things than the sexual gratification side of things, but that does not help destroy the costs and pain of lust at all.

Chastity—not modesty, not consent-based sexual ethics, not sexual shame, not even celibacy or virginity—is the counterpoint to lust and its depersonalizing evil. Chastity can include some of these at times, but it is its own, bigger and broader virtue. Chastity is quite difficult to define; I was having trouble finding a pithy definition in the sources of the past. Thomas Aquinas defines chastity as the process of making “venereal pleasure,” as he calls it (unfortunate translation there), subject to our reason. I would add, subject to our expansive love for one another and ourselves as people of Jesus.

The absence of chastity is not being too weak or lusty to save sex for marriage, or something like that, as it is often framed. The lack of chastity happens within marriages, as one partner elevates their pleasures over the other partner’s experiences. We see this in pornography use and also what might be called the “smokin’ hot wife” rhetoric that emerges from certain churches all the time, recently documented in Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, a church where women are told to give their husband whatever sexual favors they please, despite their own lack of comfort. Chastity has gone wrong in many places because we have demanded it of certain people and not of others. We have asked it of women and not men, or of gay folks but not straight folks, or of single people but not married people. In our mission to recognize the image of God in each person, we are all called to chastity. 

Chastity has also gone wrong because we have placed the burden of our temptations upon others, demanding modesty or particular behaviors. A famous example of what some consider chastity is the Billy Graham rule. The famous evangelist was never alone with a woman privately except his wife. This practice may not be necessary at particular moments and places (one is always welcome to flee from temptation). Yet such a hard and fast rule tends to transform women from full individuals to constant sources of danger and sexual temptation. 

G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful description of chastity:

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.

G.K. Chesterton, “A Piece of Chalk”

We must substitute the depersonalizing but pleasurable power of lust with something better, more radiant, more real, not just by stigmatizing human bodies or abstaining from sex. 

Chastity is more like courage or devotion, even hospitality, than modesty or a rule-oriented set of practices. It’s more like love than mere abstention. I think the closest we get to witnessing chastity in people is not as a blanket set of behaviors. It’s in individual marriages or shining individual persons: a marriage that radiates power and peace together through their mutual trust in each others’ faithfulness and troth to one another. Chastity of course appears in a life of celibacy as well: we witness the willed devotion of a person to seeing other souls truly and then resisting the urge to use them, despite their lack of sexual gratification that the culture considers impossible to live through. These people, single, married, in religious orders, or out in the world, are safe havens, because you know they will not put their pleasures above your personhood, not even in the littlest and most inconsequential ways. Their chastity is radiant and welcoming. 

What practices foster chastity, according to our medieval friends? There are some weird and highly unhelpful medieval tips, like avoiding moist foods. But there are some good ones too: keeping well your senses, for instance. Fleeing friends who lead you into doing things that you are uncomfortable with or don’t like. Watching your own language. The real action of doing good deeds for other people helps you to see God in them, and helps you to foster that love and grow it in moments when you are not tempted by lust, so that you can faithfully practice chastity when push comes to shove. Fasting helps, as gluttony and lust work in similar ways. And prayer. 

Thanks for listening, friends, to this series. I really hope that it was helpful and insightful for you, not guilt-inducing or confining, but freeing as we explore together what it might mean to imitate Jesus in our different, beautifully crafted lives. I do not ask this often, but if you’ve enjoyed this series, I’d really appreciate your financial support to keep this podcast alive and kicking. You can contribute to my book-buying and website-hosting fund, at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/gracehamman. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this or any other episode. You can find me on Twitter @gracehammanphd or Instagram @oldbookswithgrace.

The podcast will take a break for a few weeks and return in May with some really exciting new guests. Thank you again for listening and walking with me through some past ideas of the good life to examine what can form us now towards a life that loves others well.