13: 1-2, 7: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is
no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been
established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against
what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. [. . .]
Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if
respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Colossians 1:16-18: For by him
all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether
thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He
is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body,
the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in
everything he might have the supremacy.
Revelation 18:1-5: After this I saw another angel
coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his
splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She
has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean
and detestable bird. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew
rich from her excessive luxuries." Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
"Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will
not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has
remembered her crimes.
The Greek word kanon means "rod" or
"reed". It was appropriated by the Western tradition to signify the rule
of law because it suggests a measurement or standard by which to judge what is acceptable
and/or authoritative. Typically, it was used to speak of church authority, so that
if something was canonical, it represented an expression of ecclesiastical law. The
term was also used to refer to those specific books considered part of the Bible, so
canonical interpretation meant to consider something within the larger setting of
scripture as a whole. The "canon" was a closed set of works, ones
considered binding for doctrine and life.
The term "canon" by the late nineteenth century
began to be applied to secular authority, as well as secular collections of texts.
One could speak of "the canon of Plato's works," for instance. Currently,
in the field of literature, "the canonical debate" refers to which literary
texts are considered "great" or important. This is a source of continued
debate for a number of reasons:
- There is no single agreed upon standard for what makes a work
of literature great. Different communities, scholars, and cultures have differing
ideas and considerations.
- Of course, this doesn't imply that there are no
standards; rather, there are several competing ones.
- Canons are a matter of authority. After all, someone
has to decide what works will be printed and studied. Often, this authority is
institutional in nature: universities, English departments, and individual professors
continually make decisions about what will be assigned to students, required for majors,
and placed in the college catalog.
- Canons, because they make choices about what is valued and
studied, by their very nature also exclude what is not considered as valuable or
worthwhile. This works itself out in differing ways. The professor who decides
that a class should study Cervantes rather than the Sex Pistols is making a decision about
values, but then so is the teacher who decides between Dante and Chaucer due to time
- This is especially problematic when the decisions about what
is valuable lead to the exclusion of the works of whole portions of society.
For instance, only a generation ago, works by people of
color and women were not often included in the standard, received canon of "great
works". Currently, they make up a substantial portion, in large part because
people were willing to challenge the received wisdom about what should be studied.
Many times the terms "classic" and
"canon" are used interchangeably. Classics are simply what make up the
canon. Others insist that the two represent differing approaches to the problem.
A "canonical" approach is about setting limits on what can and will be
considered acceptable, while a "classical" approach is about recognizing what
has continued to be received as valuable. In this line of reasoning, the "Great
Books" are not a closed canon, where only these one hundred works and no others may
be read. Instead, they are a collection of works that have been influential in a culture
in part because so many have found an encounter with them enriching. The number of
possible classics is unlimited. They can and do encompass all the cultures of humanity --
Asian, African, Islamic, European, Native American, and so forth.
Nonetheless, there are still problems with this because
different cultures and epochs and communities differ in what makes something valuable,
beautiful, worthwhile, or well-made. Communities may come to shared standards, but
those standards do differ from place to place. Louise Cowan has suggested the following
seven reasons for why a text is considered a classic:
- "The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine
artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.
- They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both
negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing
- They have a transforming effect on the reader's
- They invite and survive frequent rereadings.
- They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide
a sense of the shared life of humanity.
- They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number
of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.
And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of
Ideally, the first five reasons result in the last two. But
once one considers that "fine artistry" and a "transforming effect"
can take on different shapes in different periods, one realizes that the problem of the
canon has not gone away. Decisions still have to be made. The classics have to
survive history, so to speak. They have to continue to make an impact as generations
pass and as standards change. And each community has to continue to decide what is
valuable, and therefore, what will be taught and praised. Because of this, it would
be a mistake to compare the problem of a literary canon too closely to the Christian
understanding of the Biblical canon. Christians certainly differed in the first few
centuries over which books should be considered divine revelation, and Catholics and
Protestants continue to disagree about the Apocrypha, but the number of these works does
not change. Literary canons, on the other hand do change and adapt, even if that
change is generally slow. Some works drop out; others enter; not all stay the
course. Some become valuable for differing reasons. Shakespeare continues to
be a standard, but his contemporary John Webster, outside Renaissance courses,
rarely is, while Aemilia Layner, a seventeenth-century poet, long ignored, is now
Christian thinking on the subject of authority is applicable
here. Christians do not believe that all authority is arbitrary. Indeed,
Christians believe that some can be legitimate. In some sense, all authority is from
God and is finally under God's supreme rule and influence. Yet Christians also
recognize that some systems of power, like the political symbol of the Whore of Babylon,
are corrupt and must be abandoned. As a people we are to "come out" from
such destruction. The problem then becomes how do we abide by and yet critique
authority in the world?
Not all of it (at least in a human sense) is mandated from
above. Some, rather than being transcendent, is immanent; it comes "from
below". If the classical model of canon formation is correct, then some
authority is more by consensus and typical practice. This is why Christians should be part
of the canonical process of formation. Just because classic works are part of a
commonly judged standard, and just because that canon is open to change, there is no
guarantee that such change promises only good things or that our interests and values will
be reflected there. Christians believe that Christ is the destined and rightfully
head of all humanity; he has a special authority to speak to the minds and emotions of
people. We should be about promoting artistically well done works that speak to the
Equally, we should deepen our sense of how a
"classic" has authority over us -- not in some non-negotiable sense, but in the
sense that it reflects a history of reception and value that may be generations old.
A classic's power is not that of master-slave, where we simply agree to believe,
accept, and not question what we are taught and told to do. Rather, its power
derives from an extensive conversation of questions and discussions which we join; we are
citizens, so to speak, with others.
And I am reminded as a teacher that I should be wary of how
I use my limited authority; hopefully it is principled rather than arbitrary and open to
critique rather than closed.
* * * * *
Central Insight: Christians should be part of
the process of forming literary canons, and they should recognize and understand the
limited authority that classic works have on them.
Suggestions for Application: These insights are
perhaps best practiced at the research (and institutional) level. Consider arguing
for why an overlooked work should be studied more often, or try showing how the debate
over a particular work expands our understanding.
Cowan, Louise and Os Guinness. Invitation to the Classics. Grand Rapids: Baker,