As much as we interpret a text, so the text interprets us. We can’t help but respond to a story. “The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet, “to catch the conscience of the king.” In our response to literature we find not merely the author’s worldview exposed but our own as well. We find our prejudices revealed, and indeed even our own sins brought to light. Certain books will surprisingly bring out more than others. Scripture is divinely adept at doing this. But other books, passages, lines can do the same. And it was only this last year, when my students were reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, that a deep fault became palpably clear. I have come to regard this as perhaps the greatest danger in classical and Christian education, because it is one of the greatest sins of our culture.
One day, while making our way through Book 2, Bede recounts the conversion of King Eabald. The story is told almost in passing, a small vignette in the large drama of the gospel among the pagan Anglo-Saxons in Britain. In Chapter VI, Laurentius, a fellow bishop and missionary to Britain, is frustrated and about to give up. Before quitting and following Mellitus and Justus back to Rome, he sleeps in the Church of the Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul. That night he is visited by St. Peter in a dream. “In the dead of night,” Bede tells us, “the blessed prince of the apostles appeared to him, and scourging him a long time with apostolical severity, asked of him, ‘Why he would forsake the flock which he had committed to him? or to what shepherds he would commit Christ’s sheep that were in the midst of wolves?’” Peter continues to rebuke Laurentius, and in the morning he has the stripes on his back to remind him. He did what any medieval bishop would do next. He showed his wounds from Peter’s chastisement to King Eabald, who, being a wise pagan, did not doubt the story but was instead “much frightened when he heard that the bishop had suffered so much at the hands of the apostle of Christ for his salvation.” Thus, the culture was transformed by the virtue of credulity: “Then,” writes Bede, “abjuring the worship of idols, and renouncing his unlawful marriage, he embraced the faith of Christ, and being baptized, promoted the affairs of the church to the utmost of his power.”
A glorious story. And as a proper historian, Bede includes the many miracles which took place in the conversion of Britain. But what interested my students more than the conversion of a pagan kingdom was whether that particular part of the story actually happened. They couldn’t be sure of the miracle. “Did that really happen?” they asked. “Was that part about Peter whipping Laurentius in a dream true?” The reality is that they had already made up their minds. And convincing our students today of miracles, dragons, or fairies in the world is an experience not unlike an exorcism. My students were not asking such questions out of joy but out of skepticism. They wanted me to give an answer that affirmed their jaded and congealed disbelief in even the possibility of such stories. These were students from Christian families, and in a moment they had transformed into 55-year-old materialists, looking at this story with a sideways glance, eyes jaundiced and narrow. Some of them had even become psychoanalysts: “St. Peter is really a figment of Bede’s guilt…” Sadly, my students’ resistance to the miracles in Bede was common throughout much of our reading. In the end, only a few came around, giving a mild assent to the plausibility of Bede’s account. But, according to Chesterton, the most important parts of history are the strange, the mysterious, the miraculous. Chesterton scorned the modern emphasis on how socio-economic conditions shape history. He hated that modern historians would diminish or debunk the fairytale-like miracle on which the course of history often turned. And when students can no longer wonder at a God who can break into the cosmos in such ways, the ability to learn is lost.
In such moments of disbelief, students can learn nothing. And when I encounter their disbelief, I do my best to disabuse them of it, but many times it is to no great avail, for belief, says C. S. Lewis, must precede all instruction. In The Discarded Image, Lewis makes this point almost in passing. But it is idea of massive consequence, and one that is not merely Christian: “By telling us to believe our forebears,” writes Lewis, “Plato is reminding us that credulitas must precede all instruction” (53).
Make no mistake; I am not saying that we shouldn’t be critical. Credulitas does not mean that one mustn’t ask questions. Rather, it means that one must learn to ask the right questions. Instead of asking, for instance, “Is that story real?” My students would have done much better to ask themselves, “Why should such a story not be real? Why couldn’t St. Peter scourge a faltering bishop in the middle of his sleep?” After all, do we not live in world where heaven and earth are “full of the glory of God”? Or, do we inhabit a world where heaven and earth are relatively empty? No. We ought to know better. The Ancients and the Medievals certainly did, Christian and pagan alike. They understood that the world is indeed charged with the grandeur of God and that it will flame out like shining from shook foil. And for all their sins, they at least possessed credulitas, a believing posture of the heart which allowed them to wonder, learn, imagine and create.