A Case for the Humanities

Georgina Prineppi considers how God may value our research in the arts and social sciences.

As a music historian, I cringe whenever a new acquaintance asks me what I ‘do’:  my answer is invariably greeted with a somewhat quizzical expression, and often a barrage of follow-up questions about why studying the history of music would be a valuable use of one’s time. As a Christian, how do I answer?

Christians understand work within God’s design and plan for his people; as such, we have ideas about the purpose of our work beyond simply a means by which we meet our rent and Netflix subscriptions. From my own reading around the subject, I have found that a ‘theology of work’ usually encompasses the following tenets: 1) all honest, honourable work is valuable to God, however humble; 2) we should use the gifts God has given us to the best of our abilities; and 3) our work should be integrated into our primary vocation as redemptive ‘salt and light’ in the world, constructively benefitting society and furthering the Kingdom. Integrating these truths can be difficult, however, and as with everything in the Christian life, doing so takes prayer and wisdom.

How does my work fit into these theological truths? Scholarship of every description is, to some degree, esoteric, but I’m afraid the humanities have been particularly vulnerable to criticism for being irrelevant. It is easy to assume that ‘advancements’ in technology, medicine, law, or education must be valuable and God-honouring because they are ‘useful’—though of course that this isn’t always the case—but what do we say about the humanities? Does the world really need a dissertation on British popular song in the nineteenth century? As a Christian, can I defend my chosen ‘work’?

I would argue that Christians are uniquely equipped to defend work in the humanities—and are indeed called to it. We live in a utilitarian world that sees little inherent value in anything: traditions, morality, truth, beauty—in a relative world, all of these issues are up for debate. Unlike our deconstructionist counterparts in the academy, Christians are able to look at the humanities with the assumption that there can be something that is objectively beautiful—objectively true—because we believe that humanity is the reflection of something that is wholly beautiful and wholly true. This is where, for us, humanity’s indelible value rests. It would be a fallacy to think that studying the humanities requires—or leads to—a humanist worldview. Humanity has proven itself to be depraved and unflinchingly cruel: in light of our own personal brokenness, studying humanity’s history is like rubbing salt in a wound. But as a Christian, I am free to see beauty in brokenness, I am free to see inherent value in humanity despite its scars and self-mutilation because I have some little idea of what it was supposed to look like. If I were a humanist, I would find the humanities unbearably depressing; as it is, I study music not because I am in awe of humanity, but because I am in awe of the Creator humanity’s music reflects.

As Christians, I feel that we often put too much emphasis on No. 2 in the list above: the productivity or usefulness of our work. An accountant would never be asked ‘why do you think accountancy is a valuable use of your time?’ because professions don’t receive questioning on their philosophical or theological worth—even when they are abstract and repetitive—if they have clear function. But God isn’t a God of boring utility: He is the Definition of beauty, the unfathomable Inventor, the prolific Creator, the reckless Lover. As a humanities scholar, I believe that music is worthy of creation and study because it reflects Him—his extravagant and indescribable beauty. Like theologians and missionaries, I can glorify His name by making known the works of His hands and magnifying his name in my workplace. Like Eric Liddell, I was given specific talents, and when I write an insightful paper on the beauty of music, ‘I feel his pleasure’!

God put a very high price on this humanity of ours, and as a Christian scholar, I anxiously await the day when its mangled form is redeemed and restored.

Georgina Prineppi is a doctoral student at Oxford studying popular music in Britain. She calls the Bahamas home. 

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