Winston Brady is a 2016 graduate of Southeastern Seminary. He now teaches American history, medieval literature, Latin, and logic at Thales Academy, and writes in his spare time. We were intrigued by some of the work he has submitted to SLAM, and we asked him to share his thoughts on literature and the classical tradition. —the Editors
How did your concentration at Southeastern shape the way you think about art?
My time at Southeastern instilled the conviction that art and literature can reflect and promote the Christian worldview, and that it is very much indeed a “good work” to do so. God, in creating us in His image, gave us creativity, imagination, and wonderment that we should exercise by striving to create works of art that glorify Him, and I am hopeful that God can use my writing as part of His plan. I am so grateful for my time at Southeastern in causing me to rethink how I can be an everyday missionary and tailor the gifts God has given me to promote the gospel in daily life.
What art forms and styles particularly interest you?
I am interested in any art form or literary style that treats man as a person of dignity and worth and then, based upon this high view of man, wrestles with the problems of the human condition. What is man’s place in the universe? How does man stand in relation to God, and how does this affect the choices man may make? As a result, I tend to drift towards epic poetry and high tragedy, the likes of Homer, Milton, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare, but I’d say directors like Christoper Nolan of The Dark Knight Trilogy and the writers of Breaking Bad inject the same kind of themes within their respective works as well.
What about the classical tradition captured your interest?
By Classical tradition, I refer to the works of Classical Antiquity like Homer and Virgil and any subsequent works that look to the Classical tradition for themes, literary conventions, characters, and symbolism… So, when I think of the Classical tradition, my mind drifts to the beachhead at Troy or of Odysseus’ wanderings across the Mediterranean; Dante’s harrowing journey into Hell and sublime ascent into Heaven; and the descent into madness and sin of once-noble heroes like Lancelot, Macbeth, or Ahab. The Classical tradition is not just the literature of Greece and Rome, but is more of a mindset that appreciates the contributions of the past and hedges them against the arrogance and overconfidence of our present age.
I remember reading Homer’s Iliad while on a college tour and being mesmerized by the manner Homer described heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Diomedes. They were larger than life in every way, but they had such recognizable faults that I could still identify with them. Achilles’ dilemma between undying glory or a rich family life bears more than a passing resemblance to the dilemma most high schoolers face between wasting their life and embracing the kind of life God has for them, like I did at the time. While Achilles was the foremost of the warriors at Troy, he is a great hero only because he wrestles with a great dilemma, one common to all people everywhere: What makes life worth living?
That same year, my junior year of high school, I read Dante Alighieri and John Milton and was confronted with the reality of God’s existence and of divine judgment for the first time. There was the solution to the dilemma of where meaning comes from in the world, found in a God at that time I did not know. I was not a Christian and, aside from a handful of Sunday school lessons, I had little knowledge of the Christian faith. It was through these works that I first became acquainted with the Christian worldview. Feeling the power and the weight behind the imagery of Dante Alighieri and the blank verse of John Milton confronted me for the first time that God really exists and that I should take His claims seriously.
What is the value of classical literature in the twenty-first century?
If you really want literary works that uphold and promote the Christian worldview, there is no better place to turn than the works of the Classical tradition. Authors like Dante Alighieri, John Donne, and Hermann Melville composed works thoroughly diffused with Christian teaching and Scripture. Even authors from pagan antiquity like Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles composed works that grapple with the hardships of human life and expose man’s culpability for the evil in the world… While I realize that epic poetry does not command the popular attention it once did, I find that these traditional forms of literature are still powerfully capable of expressing the themes of the human condition—the goodness of God to seek a lost, dying humanity, the nature of good and evil, and the struggles of human existence when humanity rejects God.
In America, we have always had a love/hate relationship with works from the Western tradition. Many of our poets and writers encouraged other Americans to break from European models and create works of literature that reflected the unique potential of the United States. But, if you’re going to break the rules, you have to know the rules. Modernist writers like Walt Whitman and William Faulkner read the works of the Classical past, and the personality those works helped shape produced the dynamic new direction they brought to American literature, and it is only by reading the best books can we seek to surpass them. Moreover, the Classical tradition is very much our tradition, and by standing on the shoulders of these literary giants, we can make sense of the modern world around us and create art that glorifies God.
How are you currently developing as an artist and what are you working on?
I have penned several short stories and one play entitled The Virginia, modeled after Shakespeare’s history plays and written in iambic pentameter. The play covers the Battle of Hampton Roads, a Civil War naval battle that saw the first engagement between ironclad ships. I love the Civil War, and in this particular battle I saw heroes on the scale of a King Lear, such as Union Commander John Worden who went blind when a shell struck the Monitor’s pilothouse, or a Coriolanus in the figure of Franklin Buchanan, a Confederate admiral who goes mad with revenge when the Union Navy expels him for his Confederate sympathies.
So, the question I asked myself while writing was, why did these figures fall from incredible heights? Was it because of the pride they had in their steel-covered warships? How do people today exhibit the same kind of pride? In Greek mythology, the invention of metallurgy and iron-smelting was seen as a horrible turning point in human history, so I used the battle as a symbol to explore the nature of human suffering and the presence of evil in the world. Does suffering come from God in the form of plagues or wars as a way for God to punish mankind, or does suffering come up from within the heart of man, when man tries to be like God and covers warships with steel?
Since then, I have been writing an epic novel modeled after Dante’s Inferno. The idea came to me while I was an undergrad at William and Mary, staying up too late reading and imagining how Dante would have dealt with the great figures of American history. The idea fascinates me because we put so many figures from American history on this towering pedestal and ignore the fact that many of them voiced hostile views towards organized Christianity, the message of the gospel, and the person of Christ. So, what if you could talk to them? What hope do we have apart from Christ, if so many men and women the world considers great died in sin, having scorned Jesus Christ and were judged accordingly?
What key classical works would you recommend for a general audience? For interested readers? For potential writers in the classical tradition?
If I could recommend key texts from age to age, it would go like this:
Classical Greece: Homer’s Odyssey. I cannot recommend enough Homer’s epic The Odyssey, depicting the perilous voyage home of the Greek warrior Odysseus. In the poem, Odysseus is faced with one temptation after another to give up on his quest and settle into a life of ease and idleness. When I reread The Odyssey, I am reminded how important it is to keep pushing forward, trying to make progress, and striving for the next island on the horizon like Odysseus. Odysseus himself serves as a symbol for the boundless potential of the human spirit and that, coupled with Homer’s rich imagery and all the monsters dotting the ancient Mediterranean world, make this poem well worth the reading.
Classical Rome: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This epic poem is a massive compendium of Greco-Roman mythology, so that in reading Ovid you basically have a survey of the greatest myths, stories, and figures from the whole of Antiquity. In addition, Ovid’s work influenced a host of authors down through the Western canon who adapted his stories into new works of literature and art, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet is based off of a Babylonian couple named Pyramus and Thisbe), and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose sculptures Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Persephone were based off of tales from Ovid’s seminal work. The myths are relatively short and many of them are funny and winsome as others are tragic, and Ovid displays incredible skill as a poet on a level commensurate to Virgil or Homer.
The Early Middle Ages: Beowulf. Beowulf follows the adventures of the eponymous hero Beowulf. The poet, while anonymous, was amongst the most skilled writers in all of history, creating an adventure story without rivals and villains that are still horrifying. And if you do not think that this Anglo-Saxon epic has had an impact on Modern culture, I’d ask you to look at nearly every monster from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator, the plot line of which is eerily similar to Beowulf, and even the monster of Netflix’s recent hit Stranger Things bears more than a passing resemblance to the fiend Grendel. Lastly, the poet was himself a Christian, and he uses Beowulf’s martial prowess to warn his readers not to trust in the strength of man and instead look only to the aid of God. Great, short read.
The Late Middle Ages: Dante’s Inferno. Pardon my obvious bias, but Dante’s work has few rivals in the Western canon. The work is worth reading for the imagery alone, with the punishments of each sinner serving as a way to allegorically describe the implications of that particular sin, should someone commit it on earth. Consider the fate of the lustful, who are tossed about in a violent storm in the same manner their unbridled passions carried them in life. Moreover, the seriousness with which Dante treats human sin and God’s judgment makes The Inferno worthwhile reading for Christians.
The Modern World: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The most unique feature of Paradise Lost, aside from Milton’s intimidating word choice, allusions to Classical history and mythology, and imagery, is the character of Satan. Milton portrays Satan in the guise of a Classical hero, as the pride that moves Satan to test an Omnipotent God at arms is the same hubris that moved warriors like Achilles to challenge Agamemnon and Odysseus to tempt the wrath of the god of the sea. The manner in which Satan describes his own rebellion against God still sends chills down my spine, that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan’s pride and his own delusions of being a self-created being who owes no allegiance to God provides some frightening insights about the extent of humanity’s rebellion we see in the world around us today. How many people do we know resist the message of the gospel, because they value freedom and autonomy higher than God’s forgiveness?
You can find more of Winston’s work on his blog.