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EPISODE 36: God’s Story in all Stories

St. John’s College has a unique mission of educating people through the careful reading of and respectful discussion of the great books of Western Civilization. My guest, Jim Phillips, the founder and former director of our C. S. Lewis Institute in Annapolis had the privilege of studying there. He shares how Gods’ story of the gospel finds resonance with so many other stories.

Recommended Resources:

When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought by John Mark Reynolds. Purchase on Amazon.

Great Books Reader, The: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization by John Mark Reynolds. Purchase on Amazon.


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I am delighted today to have as my conversation partner Jim Phillips from Annapolis, Maryland. Jim, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you, Randy. It's great to be with you and your audience.

Friendship Story

Jim and I have developed a really great friendship over the years, since Jim started our C.S. Lewis Institute in Annapolis, and now he's handed the reins of that over to other people. But Jim and I have had some really great conversations over the years, and I wanted more and more people to hear about some of those conversations. Jim has been a student at St. John's College right there in Annapolis, Maryland. And St. John’s is a rather unique academic institution. And Jim's been able to get a Master's degree from there. So, Jim, tell us. I want people to know about what St. John’s College is all about. Tell us a little bit about that, and then I'll ask you some things about your experiences there.

Sure. St. John's is very unique, in that its curriculum is the classics that shaped Western Civilization. And they have a sister college out in Tucson that offers the classics that shaped Eastern civilization. But what we'll talk about today are the classics that shape Western civilization, which I was drawn to. And there's something very special that goes on at that school: One, they teach you how to have a conversation with people that you may have very differing opinions with. They teach you how to stay focused on the text that you're reading and try to understand the author's intention in what he was writing. And they teach you not to bring anything into the conversation that doesn't exist in the text. So, it teaches you a very focused way of learning and learning in community with people who might have very differing worldviews or presuppositions from you. I keep telling them they should put a neon sign over the place that says, “Something special happening here.” Because I think something is learned at St. John's that’s been lost across the nation in general, and that is the art of difficult conversation with people you don't agree with. And I see it done winsomely there, and I'm really happy to have been a part.

But all four years as an undergraduate, you study the classics, and then there is a master’s program available. But you cannot have been a St. John's graduate because, in the master’s program, you also study the classics. It's the same curriculum as the undergraduate, but you just get a quicker view of it, and you get more of it because you don't have to do some of the undergraduate prerequisites. And I was able to do the two-year Masters program.

I love it! I love it. So, give us a flavor for what are some of these books that you read?

Sure. So, there are four or five segments that you would take in four semesters, and one of them would be the philosophy and theology seminar, and you would study their things that you might think about. You might study Confessions by Augustine. You might study… Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Theologica, and that would be some of the things you might read. But you would also read other things, like Plato and his Timaeus, in which he tries to describe the beginning of all things. And you might read Aristotle's Physics, where we run into the concept of a prime mover. And then there's politics and society, and that's where you might read Plato's Republic and learn where he describes the best possible government is actually one that is led by a philosopher king. But where could one find a philosopher king? So that's rather interesting that he does that.

And then there's the mathematics and natural science seminar. I love this because we got deep into geometry and not the way that you would think, in making proofs, but we got into how do you know what you know is true? So often, whether you realize it or not, when you do a geometric proof, you have to rely on information outside the model you're working on to help you demonstrate the proof of what you're trying to prove. And it begs the question: Do we not then have to rely on information outside the world we live in in order to determine the truth we need to know? So, a beautiful kind of stuff that you would never expect to run into. And then my favorite segment is the literature segment, which we'll probably talk a lot about yet here, but things like Canterbury's Tales and Soren Kierkegaard’s “The King and the Maiden” and many of the classics like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and those sorts of works. So that just gives you a quick flavor of the kinds of things.

Yeah. I love it. I love it. So, I imagine that some, probably not too many, but some people may be listening to this and think: Now, why would you want to read those non-Christian works, or those secular works, or those works that have a very, very different religious perspective? So how did this whole experience of reading the books and then discussing them with students, how did that deepen your own Christian faith?

So, let's begin with the first part of your question, Randy, and that is how did this interest me? And I think there's a premise we need to make here and see how it holds up during our discussion. And the premise is that, if we have a Creator and He made this world and He made us for himself and the only way we will ever know true happiness is to come to know Him and to be in relation with Him and to do what He has uniquely wired us to do. If that's true, wouldn't it make sense that He would wire us to appreciate stories that in some way reflect Himself and the way He wants to relate to us? And wouldn't it be true that people who write stories would find themselves writing about this, whether they knew that Creator or not? So, we might find embedded in a story something about the Gospel that even the author himself is unaware of, but he likes it, or she likes it, because, well, something about it resonates with me. And so, what I discovered in the classics and discussing the classics with these students is embedded in every one of these priceless works is the reason they’re priceless, and that is they actually have some truth within them that reflects upon our Creator and His desire to have a relationship with us. And that's what I love to go after, is where is that in the story?

The Gospel Story

Yeah. So, this is the C.S. Lewis Institute's podcast. So, we have to talk about C. S. Lewis for at least a moment. I mean, this was a significant part of Lewis's own conversion. He loved mythology, and he loved stories, and he read all of these stories, and he just loved them, even though, at the time of reading them, he was an atheist, and he thought life was pointless and meaningless. And yet Tolkien challenged him, as if to say, “Why do you think it is that you like these stories so much? Could it be that they point to the ultimate grander story, that all of these point to imperfectly, partially, and yet they do resonate?” I love that you use that word, resonate, and that's so very important. So, give us maybe just one or two examples: Where did you see the gospel story alluded to or foreshadowed or resonated in some of these other works?

Well, let me just share a conversation I had with you with a young lady in a coffee shop. She was a barista, and I had no idea whether she understood that she had a heavenly Father who loved her or where she stood on these things. But she saw me reading one of my St. John's books, and she said, “Well, what are you reading?” And I said, “Well, actually, I'm reading Soren Kierkegaard’s parable, “The King and a Maiden” from Philosophical Fragments. And she says, “Oh, what's that about?” Here's what I shared: “Well, it's a story about a great king who fell in love with a humble maiden and considered how he might win her love and her hand in marriage. He thought of several options why he might come to her home in a royal carriage with an armed escort and ask her father for her hand in marriage, and she might agree, but her decision would be swayed by her awe and respect for his position and not true love.” I continued, “He could have brought her to the palace to be his wife, and she'd comply out of loyalty and obedience, but it would be a violation of her freedom and therefore could not be love. Both of these options would make her his wife, but it would not be a marriage of equals. For, Kierkegaard says, ‘Love is exultant when it unites equals.’ He considered, the king, another solution. He would renounce his throne, become a servant in her village. He would pursue her as an equal and seek to win her love and her hand in marriage.”

At this point, the barista stops me and she says, “This is lovely.” And after a brief pause, I said, “What do you think Kierkegaard was trying to say about God in this story?” I saw her expression change from wonder to surprise, and whether pleasant or not, I couldn't tell, but she had this thought, and she was in a conversation she had not foreseen. She was confronted with the possibility there was a God pursuing her. And this God had humbled Himself to take on human form in order to win her hand. She had heard the gospel. It was an opportunity I'm not sure I would have had without knowledge of the classics. So, there's just an example of how story can engage you in a fascinating conversation.

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And as you're sharing that, I can't help but think about Paul in Athens, when he started quoting their poets, poets that they knew, and he was saying, “You know your poets who say, ‘In him, we live and have our being,’ and, ‘We are his offspring,’ and yes, we are his offspring. And let me tell you the fuller expression of that in the gospel.” I love that.

I was a music student a million years ago, and we had to take a physics class on acoustics, and we learned a whole lot about resonating sounds. And I still can remember, even though it was a long time ago, when the professor held up two tuning forks, and she said, “I'm going to strike one, so that it starts vibrating, and I'm just going to hold the other one near it. I'm not going to strike it or do anything, but watch what happens.” And so, she struck the one tuning fork and held it, and then the other one started vibrating and resonating with this similar sound. And I love that picture, because that's part of what I think we want to do in pre-evangelism and in these kinds of coffee shop conversations with people. Talk to them about a story that they do resonate with and then show how it points to the grander story. So, you have lots of experiences like that, I think.

Let's see if we could try this and get your readers to resonate with a struck tone. The reason that I went to St. John's was because of a quote I heard by a Christian apologist named John Mark Reynolds. And he said this: “Plato is the best teacher for a culture wandering from biblical faith. When I was too dull for the Bible, Plato’s Republic brought me back to Jesus Christ. A kingdom, Plato notes, is better than any form of government if one could only find a philosopher king. But where can one find a philosopher king? Followers of Jesus know.” And when I read that, I said, “I've got to go to St. John's,” and then here's what I learned about that philosopher king. So, get ready for your… What did you refer to it as? The little chord, the thing that resonates when you strike your tone chord?

Well, a tuning fork, actually, is what it was.

Get ready for your tuning fork to resonate. So, in the story Plato's Republic, Plato decides that he has to find people that he can raise up to be philosopher kings if he wants to have the ideal kingdom. And he says, “We have to do training. And one thing that we have to do is we've got to know the humanities, and they've got to know mathematics and all these things.” But he says, “But there's something they need to know more than anything else, and that's astronomy.” I said, “What? Astronomy.” He said, “Something within me needs to be reset, but when I go outside and I look at the stars, the handiworks of the heaven, the craftsman's display, I am reset.” And we have to teach the philosopher kings how to be reset. And I would ask our listeners right now, “Isn’t there something within all of us that we realize at some point in our life needs to be reset?” As Lewis says, we all know the right way to behave, but we don't actually behave that way. We all know a better way, a better life, a better us, and yet we just don't quite achieve it, and we need to be reset. And Plato suggests the way to be reset is to look into the stars and to think about the idea of a philosopher king who might have some authority over you. So I just find it fascinating.

I do too. You mentioned the name John Mark Reynolds. I want to recommend him. I wonder if I could have him on our podcast sometime. He started the Torrey Honors Institute out at Biola University, where students would read these great works. So, it was a very similar program to St. John's, but brought into a Christian college setting, and that's a great thing. And he himself, John Mark Reynolds, has edited a number of books and things that would be great resources. I'll try to find some of those and link them in the show notes.

There's one other thing that I'm struck by, with your telling of that story of the barista in the coffee shop. I think we're living in a time when there's a terrible amount of intellectual shallowness and lack of attention span and lack of reading, and it can really get quite discouraging. And yet I find that there are still many, many people who are hungering for intellectually engaging and rigorous conversations. Even if they haven't read any of those books, they might see you reading, my goodness, Kierkegaard, of all people, or Plato. And we would think, “Oh, they're not interested in that. They're only interested in the latest tweet on their phone or something.” But no, there's a hunger, I think, again not with everyone, but with enough people that I think we should not assume that we always have to dumb things down. There are quite a few people, I think, who I think they're tired of being dumbed down to, if I can use that expression. But now I'm ranting and going off on a sermon. 

You know some of these conversations can come from some of the most unlikely sources. I’m just giving you an example. Lucretius? He lived in Rome in the first century BC. He was a strict materialist. He didn't believe in any theistic kinds of things, and he was trying to convince the Romans that they should believe in material. Matter was all that ever was and all that ever will be. And he writes this in a poem he wrote called “On the Nature of Things.”  Now, why would I, as a believer, even be interested to read such a thing? But yet St. John's put it in front of me. And here's what happens is, in his argument for a materialistic universe, ironically, he presents a wonderful cosmological argument, suggesting that the first cause of all things, the first cause, must exist eternally, have no parts, and be unchanging.

Did anybody point out to this guy that he wasn't being a very consistent materialist?

I thought, “There’s something going on here that's not with the rest of his story. And what an amazing opportunity, because a materialist would have read something like this and would consider it to be a really critical piece to their worldview and their belief system. And yet here is a statement by someone they might read that is a wide-open door for the gospel, so it’s in the most unique places.

Yes. Well, I hope this doesn't seem like an abrupt shift for our listeners, because I don't see it that way. But you and I have also had this conversation of where you started seeing then these, I don't know, foreshadowing or resonating of the gospel story in numerous places in the Old Testament. And I'm assuming that reading some or a great deal of the Old Testament was also part of your reading there at St. John's. Is that right?

It was.

Yeah. So, tell us a little bit about that, about where you started seeing more and more displays of foreshadowing or pictures of the gospel in Old Testament narrative.

Well, I got the idea from someone a lot of your listeners may know, and that's Dr. John Lennox at Oxford. He started talking about how—he said it this way: When you read a story from the Old Testament, if you don't know how it's about Christ, you don't know it. And I went that day, and I bought a brand-new Bible with no markings, no highlights, and I began what turned out to be about a two-year reading of the Old Testament, looking for Christ in the Old Testament. And as John Lennox says, when you look at a field of clover, it all looks the same until somebody points out there's a four-leaf clover in that field. And the next thing you know, you're looking differently at the clover, and you begin to notice there's a lot of four-leaf clovers in this field. We never saw them before. And so first we have to understand what the gospel is, what a four-leaf clover looks like, in order to see it embedded among all the stories.

And briefly, it's this: There is judgment coming, doom is coming, but a rescue has been made available, but you must accept the terms of the rescuer. And you say, “Wow, where is that in the Old Testament?” Well, I love to ask this question: What is the oldest world religion? And often I get told, well, it's probably Hinduism or Judaism, which if you go to Wikipedia is probably correct. But that's actually not true because the oldest “religion,” the gospel, is in the garden, because when Adam and Eve disobeyed, God came looking for them. And remember, He said, the day you eat of it, you will die. Judgment was coming. They ran, hid themselves, and put fig leaves on. That was their effort to fix things up between them and God, their way. God says, “That doesn't work, try these. And He holds up animal skins.” Now, they could have rejected the skins and been under the judgment of God, or they can accept the skins and now stand before holy God, having been provided with this divine garment at the cost of shed blood. And there is the gospel in the garden. And I say it's the oldest “religion,” and I use religion in quotes because I always like to distinguish it from the gospel. But the oldest, if you will, practice of belief and faith towards a holy Being is in the garden.

Noah's Story

And now we start finding it over and over again. Noah and the ark. Judgment is coming, a rescue has been made available, the ark, but you've got to go in. Do you remember Moses coming to deliver the children of Israel from Egypt? And he comes to the last plague. The Lord is going to sweep over the land. The firstborn in every house will die unless you have the blood of the lamb on the doorpost. So, doom was coming, but a rescue was available, but you had to apply the blood, and it keeps going. Manna was provided for them in the desert, but they had to go get it. Rahab says, “We know the Lord has given you the city. How can you spare us?” Judgment was coming. They said, “Gather your family, and all who will come in this house, and anybody in this house will be saved.” So, the rescuer made provision, but you had to go in her house.

And we could keep going. I love the story of Hosea rescuing Gomer, his bride. Because she deserved judgment, but instead of judgment, he came and he held out his hand, and he says, “Now you're mine twice,” as he bought her from slavery, “first because I chose you, and now because I have bought you with a price.” She could’ve rejected his hand, and he would have had the right to stone her right there. But instead, she puts her hand in his, and he leads her away to one of the most beautiful passages of all scripture, “Where you will come home, you will live with me, and I will live with you.” So, there you have it.

And I could keep going, but just pick a story. And I find the gospel being displayed, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and I think it has a lot to do with Jesus as encountered by the religious leaders of his day. And they start doubting who He is and what He’s about and this whole death/resurrection thing. And He says to them, “You don't know me. You don't recognize what's going on here because you don't know the Scriptures. If you knew the scriptures, you’d know who it was that was here talking to you.” And He was trying to tell them all this has been foreshadowed. It's there for you to see. So, I just love… If I could go do some postgraduate work one day on this, I’d love to do a doctorate on the gospel in the Old Testament.

Oh, well, I think that would be great. Now I will tell you, you're certainly not the first one to want to do that. And so, there are some really great resources along those lines.

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And you're exactly right. I love that image you gave about looking for the four-leaf clover. Once you see one of these four-leaf clovers, you start looking for them and seeing them and seeing elements of it. And I'm sure that part of God’s design of those Old Testament scriptures are to stir our affections and to stir our emotions, so that then when we saw the ultimate, the greatest, the once for all rescue that is offered, the one that won't need to be repeated. See, that's where all the other ones, they fall short. They're good, they're effective for that situation. But once the once for all delivered Messiah’s atonement is made, it doesn't need to be repeated, and it doesn't need any more retell-… Well, it needs retelling, but not anymore foreshadowing because it's come in its fullness. So, I just find it so delightful that your experience at a very, they might call it secular school had such a great enhancing effect in your own personal love for the Lord and love for the scriptures. Were you able to have some good conversations with fellow students about the gospel as it was foreshadowed even by Lucretius and others?

I was. And let me just give you an example. So, some of the books we read were like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, Euripides, Hippolytus and Bacchae, and Sophocles’s Antigone and Oedipus the King. These are all Greek classics written between the eighth and fourth century BC. So how do these offer an opportunity for the Gospel? Well, they're all about a pantheon of gods, and those gods were responsible for the world as they saw it. But those gods were whimsical, without moral virtues. They were able to deny human freedoms to accomplish their purposes. Men and women were left without moral compasses and having to decide for themselves who was right and wrong. And ultimately, men and women were not responsible for their actions because of the influence of external forces. Does this sound familiar? It is a postmodern secular humanistic culture that I'm describing but that existed with the pantheon of gods in ancient Greece. And it provides the most amazing opportunity to say, “When your gods are whimsical and unreliable and without moral value, does it leave any wonder as to why you would feel lost and unable to find your way in cultural society?” And so, it leaves the opportunity for what the real, true God might look like.

Man, I love it. Well, we could go on and on, but I'm going to let our listeners just be teased and draw this to a close. But let me ask just one, because I have a feeling some people might be listening and thinking, “Well, I'm really glad Jim Phillips is that smart, and he could read all those really hard books. I don't think I could tackle any of them.” And I have a feeling that you may have felt that way early on, but what would be a good starting point, or a couple of good starting points, if people wanted to say, “You know, I would like to get a taste of some of these classic works.” What would be one or two suggestions you might have that could be stepping into the shallow end of the pool?

So, I'm going to suggest that you don't just limit it to classics, that you consider that every story, whatever the Lord has drawn your interest to, you're going to find the gospel in story. One I think would be very fun for our readers is Canterbury Tales. There are two tales in there: One of them is the Knight's Tale, and the other is the Clerk's Tale. And I would challenge you to go find the gospel in those two stories. It's amazing. There are Christ figures in both stories. And it gives you a wonderful opportunity to discuss these things. And here's another little tease just to show you how you don't have to look too far and you don't have to read these “intellectual books.” How about the movie, 2018 movie, Beauty and the Beast?

Go for it. Let's hear it.

It’s a great opportunity. You say, “Wait a minute. What are you talking about?” Well, get this: A self-centered and wicked man, Gaston, wants to marry a beautiful and innocent Belle. Not because he loves her, but because she would enhance his image. And Belle has a very close relationship with her father, who Gaston hates, and she resists his advances. But not far away, there's a proud man in a beautiful land given an opportunity to show compassion on a poor woman. He refuses and falls under a curse. He becomes a ghastly beast, losing all of his original beauty. And everybody in his kingdom becomes inhuman objects, with only a shadow of their humanity remaining. And his kingdom is overrun with thorns and thistles. And he's given a limited amount of time to find somebody to fall in love with him, despite his condition, or all will become permanent. Belle's father visits the kingdom and is taken prisoner. Belle comes to her father and takes his place in the prison. Now, there's an interesting theological parallel. How can Christ relieve the predicament of the Father? I'll leave that one for your listeners.

But she relieves the father’s predicament, and she takes his place, and while in the castle with the Beast and his subjects, she sees the humanity in the Beast. A great struggle follows. Gaston leads the force against Beast and Belle. He suffers a mortal fall. Belle announces her love for the Beast, who is restored to his original beauty, along with all his subjects in their kingdom. And Belle, the Beast, and her father live happily ever after without interference from Gaston and his followers again. There, my friends, is the gospel.

Oh, man. This is great.

An opportunity to discuss it with your kids. Take your kids to see the movie and then simply come home and say, “Who in the figure is most like Jesus?”

Yeah. And then to see that the full expression of the gospel, in the story of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead, is the ultimate, the greatest expression of these. And so, we see all of those stories pointing to the gospel and yet at the same time falling short. And so, then we appreciate, “Oh, but this isn't just one person who did this. No, this is God Himself, dying and rising from the dead to atone for sinful, lost people.” This is wonderful.

Aristotle knew there was a prime mover, and he believed that prime mover was the thing around which the whole universe yearned and longed for, but he did not know how to get there.

Oh, man. Well, I'm going to wrap this up. But, Jim, I really am so very, very grateful for the way the Lord has worked in your life through these experiences and how he planted you in Annapolis. I just love that house where you live. You look down one street, and you see the Naval Academy. You look down the other street, you see St. John's. And God has given you a burden for both of those places. And we've seen God used you in both of those places.

So, may the Lord continue to work in and through you and for all of us, that we would look down the street one way and down the other street, and where has God placed us? And how does he want to use us for the sake of His kingdom? We hope this podcast has been a great encouragement for you. As all of our podcasts, we hope it helps you explore discipleship of the heart and mind. And may all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute be something that helps you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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