The Value of Studying Latin and Greek

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The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1...

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Fall quarter at David Lipscomb College began in late September, when the cool breezes of fall invade the dying summer air. Just before three in the afternoon, excited and scared, I carried my Introduction to Greek textbook to class along with pen and notebook. My heart pounded when I sat in class, and a dour looking professor, Dr. Harvey Floyd, walked in and said, “Pos echeis moi?” He kept repeating the phrase. Eventually he told us to reply, “kalos echo.” He explained that “pos echeis moi” means “How are you?” (literally, “How are you to me”) and that kalos echo means, “I am fine” (literally, “I have fine”). He proceeded to introduce the Greek alphabet.

After that, I struggled to three Cs in first year Greek–Classical (Attic) Greek, not the koine Greek most often taught in Christian universities. The grades were real Cs, too–not “mer-Cs.” I know Dr. Floyd was disappointed, since he knew I was not really a C student–and so was I. I must confess that I did not enjoy first year Greek. The experience was like having my teeth pulled–slowly and without lidocaine. However, I learned more about English grammar in Greek class than I learned in twelve years of public schools. Later, I felt great joy in reading parts of the New Testament in Greek.

The knowledge I gained in Greek helped me later when I studied Latin on my own and took a third semester course in Latin readings for credit, in which I made an A. The discipline I gained–in studying for hours, in precision in my language–continues to be valuable as I juxtapose teaching philosophy, academic writing, and creative writing. If a student can do well in Greek or Latin, that student is ready and able to handle a university curriculum.

I support Latin programs in high schools, and believe that every student in a liberal arts college or university should take first and second year Latin or Greek. That makes me a dinosaur, even at my own school, where some professors consider the study of ancient languages to itself be an anachronism. Such a requirement would probably empty the classrooms of liberal arts colleges that are struggling to survive, especially if they are tuition-driven. At the very least, Greek and Latin should be an encouraged option. The study of these languages has a number of benefits:

1. It forces a student to be disciplined. Studying a classical language can require three to four hours of study a night. This discipline can be transferred to the other classes a student takes.

2. There is no better way to teach English grammar. To pass Latin or Greek, a student must have a commanding knowledge of English grammar.

3. Latin and Greek expose students to the heart of Western Culture. These are the actual languages spoken in ancient Greece and Rome, and they were important literary languages as well. Reading the work of Caesar, Cicero, Tacitus, Virgil, or in Greek Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, or Aristophanes in the original languages can help a student get to the heart of these class writers.

4. Students going into the sciences and into medicine can discover the roots of many of the technical terms used in those fields.

5. Christians can understand their unique literature better. Koine, or common, Greek is the language of the New Testament. With Greek, a Christian can read the New Testament without need of a translation. He can also read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint. Students of Latin can read the Latin Vulgate. Students of both languages can read some of the early Church Fathers. I use Latin when I study St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, my favorite medieval philosophers.

There is no better way to truly educate a person than having him learn to read a classical language. I hope and pray that there will be a trend in favor of a revival of the study of Greek and Latin–the sooner the better.

How “Christian Fiction” Can Improve


Adam (2008 novel)

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Christian fiction” is a problematic term, for it raises the danger of literature becoming preachy rather than being good art. Good fiction does not tell; it shows. Didactic fiction is usually poorly written, as the overrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals. There are writers in the Christian fiction genre who write very well–Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker immediately come to mind. They get their message across without being preachy, they have read widely in contemporary mainstream fiction, and they have worked hard on the craft of writing. When I look through fiction at a Christian bookstore, I turn to the first page, then a few random pages, to check the quality of the writing. Most of the time, it is so bad that I have to put the book down. Some books are preachy. Others have dialogue so unrealistic that it strains credulity. Dialogue tags are misused: “He said excitedly”; “She shouted angrily.” This is an elementary mistake that novice writers often make. Adjectives and adverbs are overused. H. P. Lovecraft had the skill to get away with using a plethora of adjectives; most writers do not. Modifiers should never replace images.

On the other hand, some books are so conservatively edited that they come across as stiff. Good style in a novel is not the same as good style in an academic piece, and not all authors or editors understand this. It is obvious that some Christian writers, and most likely some editors, are unfamiliar with contemporary literary fiction. They should read classic modern authors such as Hemingway as well as more contemporary authors such as Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff. A good writer knows the basic rules of writing, but also knows when to break the rules. If Christian fiction is ever to rise to a higher literary level, writers should become skilled enough to know when to break the rules and when to abide by them.

The main temptation for the Christian writer remains didacticism–preachiness. It might be a better strategy for traditional Christians involved in writing to write “mainstream fiction” and show their world view, rather than preach it. Ted Dekker’s fiction, though more suspense than so-called “literary” fiction, has broken through the mainstream market due to its excellent quality. I have heard people who would never darken the door of a church praise Dekker’s fiction. Who knows? Perhaps Dekker’s books, by showing rather than telling, can do more to communicate the Christian message than a didactic work. Flannery O’Connor once said that the Christian message can only be communicated indirectly for modern secular people to understand it. Perhaps contemporary writers in the Christian genre can take her advice.