Carson Newman: On Truth, Beauty, and Why Reading Matters

I spoke last Thursday morning to a packed Baptist Church at Carson-Newman University, just outside Knoxville, Tennessee. It was the third in a series of lectures sponsored by the University for their students on the subject of ‘truth and beauty.’ My spin was about the internet, the central place of story (and reading stories specifically), and one answer to ‘the mystery of fiction.’

The students and faculty were as kind and welcoming as their campus is beautiful, which is really saying something, especially as the Blue Ridge was exploding in color. If you enjoy this talk, I’m confident you have had only a small fraction of the pleasure I enjoyed in good company and conversation at Carson Newman. Cheers to you — and thanks to Alison, Macy, and April at Carson Newman for making my stay as pleasant as it was!


  1. I am SOOOO pleased that we were finally able to have you on campus John, even if I unfortunately had to be out of town at an Association of Christian Librarians board of directors meeting last week and completely missed your visit. I’m very glad my colleagues did well in hosting you in my absence (as I knew they would!)

  2. Arianna Ackerman says

    I was there for your lecture on truth and beauty and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it! I truly appreciated the deep theological underpinnings you explored. I know that many students, including myself, found themselves thinking of literature and the human condition in new ways.

  3. Tinuvielas says

    After having read and learned so much by and from you, it is great to see and hear you speak in person (albeit on the internet… ;-). I’m still wondering why they haven’t offered you a “real” professor’s job inside the academia yet…

    Also, I’d like to pose a somewhat longish question, (hoping you don’t mind): In your talk you mentioned Harry being the “heart”-figure with whom the reader identifies (logically, what with him being the pov-figure). However, elsewhere you state (I think correctly) that in the body-heart(/soul/will/mind)-spirit–tryptich of HP, Harry represents the “spirit”-character, with Ron and Hermione as respectively “body” and “mind/will”. As you see, I find the middle-category somewhat difficult to name – in fact, when I recently explored the symbolism and various functions of the trio in literature and film, of course including the soul-tryptich, I ran into major difficulties trying to get the terminology straight and consistent when applied to different texts and their sets of characters.

    Now, maybe I got that wrong, so please correct me – but isn’t there a distinction between the “heart/soul/will/mind”-aspect and the “spirit” aspect? And isn’t it true that the hero can be either? Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan for instance are – incidentally female – “soul/will”-characters, with Peeta and Edward representing spirit in these novels, but in HP you haven’t got a similar “spirit”-character outside of Harry – nor do you in Lord of the Rings outside of Frodo (unless you want to count the mentor-characters Dumbledore and Gandalf). In fact, I think that in these two texts, the – incidentally male – heroes in fact represent the “spirit” who is being transformed with the (literal) help of body and mind (in the latter case Gollum and Sam). So it seems male heroes are more likely to represent “spirit”, while females are more likely to represent “heart/soul/will”.

    Both models, however, are significantly different from Plato’s charioteer, where it is the “soul/will/mind” (comparable to Freud’s ego) who must guide the “body”-horse (id) and the “spirit”-horse (super-ego) to enlightenment. And all three (!) are I think different again from modern ‘character’-tryptichs (not soul-tryptichs anymore!!!) as perhaps most typically evidenced by Star Trek, where there is a distinction between (excessive) “body” (McCoy), (excessive) “brain” (Spock) and the “heart”-hero (Kirk). Thus, in modern texts, you lack the spiritual dimension, which is replaced by a sort of impulsive, intuitive conscience- or “heart” character who qua ego mediates between the intellect and the emotions – this tryptich being of course a symbolic picture of modern man, who as Eliade says has to rely on himself without any spiritual instance to guide him. “Heart” in the modern tryptich thus doesn’t really mean the same thing as when you use it – or does it??? Would you agree with my analysis – or am I missing something? I’d really appreciate your opinion!

    🙂 Anja

  4. Thanks for posting this, John. I have followed your blog for many moons now. It was great to see you sharing the wealth of ‘knowledge’ with Carson-Newman, my alma mater.

    You referred to readers identifying with particular characters, and rarely is it Harry. My husband and I were watching ABC Family’s Harry marathon again last week and I commented on this exact element, though not as cogently. Generally, I have difficulty connecting with a single character, but seem to connect with the element of perceived personal growth across characters, especially Neville and Ron. I appreciate their strength, humility, movement in overcoming the internal lies that hold them back, and emerging into leaders and honorable men. After having listened to your ‘lecture’, I will now have to step back and consider more deeply of how these characters are connecting with my persona.


  5. Thank you for coming to visit and speak us! This post was from awhile ago, but it’s so nice to see even now. You spoke so much truth while here. It was a pleasure to hear.

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