Peter Kreeft on Books & Music

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What do you love most about the Bible?

I love its nouns. The Bible is great, and heavy, and big, and important, because of its nouns. Even if we don’t understand them much, we know such words are like hundred-car freight trains freighted with meaning: they are mountains; they are oceans; they are supernovas. God, Man, Woman, Life, Death, Love, Hate, Goodness, Evil, Justice, Word, Spirit, Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Light, Water, Earth, Sky, Sun, Moon, Name, War, Peace. You just know that whatever else those words are, those are Great Beasts.

I even love the parts most people love the least, the genealogies. Those are people. Every one of them is just as real and just as important as you are.

Can fiction be true or false?

Yes. There are true and false stories both in fiction and in real life. Stories are mankind’s oldest and most universal art. Every group of humans tells stories, especially about themselves and people like them. Stories are either true or false — truths or lies about people and about life. The most important truth stories can tell is that there is hope, that there is meaning to life.

Most modern stories imply that this is an illusion created by us. That is why most modern stories are false, are lies. They are also boring and depressing. And that is also why The Lord of the Rings is so powerful and healing: because it is true.

Another common lie about life, and about stories, is that there is no such thing as a soul, or free will, or an absolute morality, or salvation and damnation. Stories that assume that lie are never as interesting as stories that assume the opposite, for nothing is more interesting, more dramatic, and more important than whether a soul will go to Heaven or to Hell. No merely temporary and physical pleasure, however ecstatic, and no suffering, however horrendous, is even interesting, much less compelling, compared with that.

That is why most people today are bored. The very word “boredom” did not exist in ancient cultures and languages. Only people who have lost their humanity and who believe they are just clever animals, and are trying to live like happy animals, or are on their way to becoming mere animals — only such fools can be bored.

You’ve written more than eighty books. Which of them is your favorite?

Depends on what I favor it for. If you ask which book took the most time and work and sweat and revision, and the one that has the most different parts of me in it, it’s my novel An Ocean Full of Angels, which is an angel’s eye view of the connection between Jesus Christ, dead Vikings, philosophical Muslims, Russian prophets, the superiority of islands, the Great Blizzard of ’78, two and a half popes in one year, armless nature, mystics, the legend of the Wandering Jew, the demon Hurricano, the disguises of angels, the dooms of the Boston Red Sox, the Sea Serpent, the Palestinian “intifada,” the sexual revolution, post-abortion trauma, Romeo and Juliet, Jewish mother substitutes, the psychology of suicide, home-baked bread, the Theory of Everything, Dutch Calvinist seminarians, humanity’s obsession with the sea, sassy Black feminists, the identity crisis of Catholic universities, Caribbean rubber dancers, false Messiahs, the mysticism of body surfing, and the end of the world. But that’s an oversimplification.

If you ask which book I’d make everybody in the world read if I could, it’s Jesus Shock. If you ask which book is the best written, I think it’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, because Pascal is such a good writer.

If you ask which book is the most philosophical, it’s Summa of the Summa, which is the most philosophically important passages in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, edited and footnoted and explained.

If you ask which book is the closest to my heart, it’s either Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing or I Burned for Your Peace, which is about Augustine’s Confessions, or the new one on the heart, The Highways of the Heart.

If you ask which book I’d give to a materialist and naturalist and atheist who is open-minded, it’s Doors in the Walls of the World.

The one that most students will read and learn philosophy from is probably my four-volume history of philosophy for beginners, Socrates’ Children: The 100 Greatest Philosophers.

You quote Chesterton a lot. Tell us one practical thing you’ve learned from Chesterton.

Gladly. I learned Mooreeffoc. It’s an exotic-sounding word. It’s simply “coffee room” backward, as seen from the inside of the door of a coffee room. G. K. Chesterton uses it as an image for the kind of mental fantasy that anyone can indulge in without expense or travel or danger. Just look at familiar things in an unfamiliar way: backward, or upside down, or from an angle. Tilt your head to one side, and the whole world looks new, and weird, and adventurous.

Chesterton defines an adventure as “nothing but an inconvenience rightly considered.” An inconvenience is “nothing but an adventure wrongly considered.”

During World War II, meat was scarce and tough in England. Parents made it more edible for their kids by saying it was mastodon meat killed by a caveman or dinosaur meat secured by a time traveler. By dipping it in fantasy, you make it wonderful. But (and here is the real point) you can see all ordinary things as new and wonderful by dipping them in fantasy.

Thus, in a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings, it is not just the wizards and orcs and elves and dwarves but the ordinary things — the hobbits themselves and their food and the trees and the roads they travel — that are enchanted and made wonderful by being dipped (incorporated) in fantasy. We do not have orcs and elves, but we do have bread and trees. Dip them in fantasy and you see them truly. For everything really is wonderful and ceases to be so only when we let layers of the dust of familiarity accumulate on them. Fantasy blows away that dust.

Children understand this best. Don’t lose your childhood. You are not a train moving down the track of progress and leaving each station behind as you move to the next one; you are a snowball rolling downhill, keeping the snow you picked up at the beginning of your journey, at the top of the hill, inside you, nearest to your heart, as you roll down the hill.

Samuel Johnson said, when he was fat and fifty, that one the greatest pleasures of his life was rolling down a hill full of snow. He had added to himself more of two things at the bottom than at the top: snow and happiness.

What do you think about Christian rock — contemporary Christian music?

I don’t think anything about it, because it makes me stop thinking and makes me start grimacing with embarrassment and mental pain. And I don’t think those who love it think anything aboutit either because it does to thinking what cavities do to teeth.

It is shallow, stupid, self-absorbed, sentimental, sissy, silly, soupy, and smarmy. It is fit only for Southern California teeny-boppers or for those who are so hokey and pokey that they think the hokey-pokey really is “what it’s all about.” “Christian rock” is a deep insult not only to Christianity but to rock.

Comparing those so-called praise choruses to the great old classic Christian hymns is like comparing maggots to lions, mayflies to eagles, or a fat, big-mouthed drunk with St. Vitus dance hopping on hot coals to the Bolshoi Ballet. The other kind of contemporary worship music, more popular in Catholic churches now, much of it from the St. Louis Jesuits, sounds like the music that would come from a pansy imitating a kitten, or a brain made of limp noodles, or a pastel yellow happy face on pot.

It is not a question of personal taste or even aesthetics. It’s a question of theology. Music is a sign. It points to something. It  points to Christ. The Church’s Christ is Christ the King. The Christ of today’s popular liturgical music is Christ the Kitten. Now ask me how I really feel about it.

There’s a medieval story about a king who had to choose between supporting Rome or Byzantium. He sampled both liturgies, and said, “The Orthodox liturgy brings me to Heaven. I hear angels there. I choose Heaven for my kingdom.”

“There are many liturgies like that. Here is a prayer from the Chaldean liturgy. Compare it with “contemporary Christian” music:Before the glorious seat of Thy majesty, O Lord, and the awful judgment seat of Thy burning love, and the absolving altar which Thy command hath set up, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth, we Thy people and the sheep of Thy fold do kneel with thousands of the cherubim, singing Alleluia, and many times ten thousand seraphim and archangels, acclaiming Thy holiness, worshipping, confessing, and praising Thee at all time, O Lord of all.”

I’m not saying you should choose a church based on liturgy alone. Doctrinal truth has to come first, and then holiness: Does it teach and practice sanctity? And the historical link with Christ is crucial: Is this the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that He founded? But liturgy is important too, because it is a sacramental sign that effects what it signifies, and it usually points to and goes with those two other things. You see the presence of the same Christ in the Church’s truth, in her goodness, and in her beauty.

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This article is adapted from a section in Ask Peter Kreeft by Dr. Peter Kreeft, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Peter Kreeft: Cover and interior images used with permission.

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