As a Hillsdale College student, I had the great blessing of learning with Bradley J. Birzer, the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies. From the Civil War to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the American West to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Dr. Birzer guided me through some of the most important themes in my education. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.
Last month, Birzer published a new essay collection, Mythic Realms: The Moral Imagination in Literature and Film, which captures something of the magic I encountered in his classroom. A sequel to his earlier work Beyond Tenebrae, Mythic Realms is a series of reflections on both classic and popular culture from a Christian humanist perspective. For Christians worried about how to pass on the faith in trying times, Birzer’s work in Mythic Realms can serve as an inspiring model and guide.
What exactly is Christian humanism? Early in Mythic Realms, Birzer says it is a worldview rooted in the way early Christians combined Platonic and Stoic philosophy with Hebrew revelation to understand the mystery of human life and the Incarnate God. In his Gospel, St. John shows how the eternal can enlighten all human beings – and Birzer argues that this is the founding idea of Christian humanism. Beauty is ultimately a signpost to God, a flash of light in a dark world. The Christian humanist seeks to build a culture oriented around such beauty, a culture that can point to man’s divine destiny.
Sadly, though, the Christian humanist also knows that man is a fallen creature. We fritter away the glories of Western civilization in our pursuit of worldly pleasures, forsaking the truer, eternal joy of our heritage for passing fancies. What is needed, then, are works of creativity and worship that can remind mankind that God created us for great things. Such creativity “will save civilization before it succumbs to self-destruction,” Birzer writes in the introduction.
Birzer takes many of his cues from twentieth-century Christian humanists. The great crises of World War II and the Cold War drew out equally great thinkers and writers who renewed the moral imagination in their own time. In the United Kingdom, the Inklings – especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – led the charge. In the United States, no Christian humanist stood taller than Russell Kirk (the subject of a magisterial biography Birzer published while I was his student).
Essays on Lewis and Tolkien, in particular, demonstrate the value of myth to the Christian humanist project. Their novels proved, according to Birzer, that a modern writer could “promote one’s philosophical and religious beliefs without being overly blatant” and “create art while avoiding the pitfalls of the ever-present ideological morass and political propaganda of the era.” Narnia and Middle Earth are almost second homes to many readers because the mythologies the authors created were not only interesting in their own right, but morally edifying, too.
For Christian humanism to be a living project, however, it must be more than a longing for the Middle Ages. Narnia and Middle Earth can teach Christians something about how to live, but fictional worlds cannot be the places where we live. Tradition is not meant to mummify society or culture. Birzer’s work in Mythic Realms points to the way Christian humanists can avoid becoming simple-minded reactionaries.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Birzer’s Christian humanism is its deeply-felt Americanness. He praises Willa Cather in one essay, for example, for “creat[ing] an American Myth” in her novel O Pioneers!, tied to the spirit of the frontiers. Birzer points out, though, that Cather’s pioneers are no “rugged individualists,” struggling to make it all on their own. Rather, “those immigrant farmers brought with them the skills, manners, and attitudes of the old world.” The pioneer towns, clinging to their traditional Christian faith, were able to endow American freedom with deep religious meaning. The faith was the beating heart of the communities the pioneers needed to survive harsh frontier conditions — it both made life possible, and it made life worth living.
Similarly, Birzer’s own scholarship helps readers and students understand the relationship between the faith they hold and the world around them. The faith of Cather’s pioneers did not alienate them from America – in fact, it made them better Americans and enabled them to tame the wilderness. Likewise, Birzer’s Christian humanism does not alienate his students from the modern world – rather, it makes them better suited to serve and improve it.
In this spirit, the second half of Mythic Realms is dedicated to applying the Christian humanist perspective to popular culture. From Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to John Hughes’s ‘80s movies, Birzer examines how Christian humanist themes are present in unexpected places. These essays are fun, to be sure, but they are also deeply serious. They represent a mode of cultural engagement that is both critical and appreciative, and a desire to find truth and beauty even where others may not look.
Brad Birzer is the leading proponent of Christian humanism today. In Mythic Realms, he effortlessly blends historical scholarship, literary criticism, and a charming approach to thinking about pop culture. In the midst of immense civilizational rot, Birzer’s work is a refreshing reminder that Christians are more than capable of offering a vital, inspiring alternative to the mire of modern life.