We Interrupt This Message…

Christians of my ilk like to bash Disney as the world’s guiltiest hawker of the Gospel of Self. Uncle Walt sold us the toxic message, “Believe in yourself,” which has caused generations of children to despise tradition and their parents.

Disney was certainly an optimist who believed in the inherent innocence of people—the childhood within—that can be counted on to keep us walking straight. Disneyland, the “World of Tomorrow,” and 90% of Disney products dish out this message liberally, so I understand my friends’ disdain. But, please, don’t throw Disney movies out with the bathwater.

The full-length, animated, theatrically released Disney movies are peerless examples of American cinema. In some ways, they’re more classic than classic films because most of them are based on folk tales and fables. And, far from promulgating a “Believe in Yourself” message, these films have a variety of messages, which I’ve summarized below. (Some of these I haven’t seen in years, so I either skipped them or had to rely on memory.)

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Classic fairy tale. Other than silly animals and bumbling dwarfs, nothing untoward about this. Even C. S. Lewis liked it.
  • Pinocchio: A puppet wants to become a human, but must first prove himself worthy. He is granted humanity only after he acts like a human. Patently not existentialist.
  • Dumbo: A little bit of “Believe in yourself” here. You don’t need a magic feather to fly. The power was within you all along.
  • Bambi: The whole point is Bambi growing up into his responsibility as Prince of the Forest.
  • Cinderella: Another example of a lowly person of good character exalted to her rightful, royal position. And what an ending! “I have the other slipper.” A eucatastrophe to make Tolkien proud.
  • Alice in Wonderland: Too weird to even have a message other than “Don’t fall asleep while your sister is reading to you.”
  • Peter Pan: Tempted by a boy who never wants to grow up, the children eventually turn their backs on him and decide that, actually, they need to grow up.
  • Lady and the Tramp: Tramp yanked from his lazy, irresponsible life and made into a loving husband and father.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Classic fairy tale. Prince kills dragon. More silly animals and fairies. Beautiful sets, though.
  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians: An evil heiress defeated by her own vanity and a horde of dogs. Parental courage and responsibility highlighted.
  • The Sword in the Stone: Wart doesn’t want to become King Arthur, but has to. A silly wizard, but other than that, classic.
  • The Jungle Book: Mowgli is told he must live in the man village. He spends most of the movie running away, until he sees a pretty human girl and suddenly the idea of being a man doesn’t seem so bad after all.
  • The Aristocats: Similar to Lady and the Tramp. A happy-go-lucky wanderer accepts parental and marital responsibility.
  • Robin Hood: A pox on that phony king of England! Oo-de-lally!
  • The Rescuers: Secret agent mice! The only people who think they can be whoever they want to be are the villains.
  • The Fox and the Hound: Nothing can change who you are, but you can choose to be the best version of who you are.
  • The Black Cauldron (1985): Never seen this one. Bizarre.
  • The Great Mouse Detective: An intelligent stuck-up detective is humbled by caring for a little girl.
  • Oliver & Company: Ok, we’re kind of getting into “Be whoever you want” territory here. But from what I can remember, Oliver stays a cat.
  • The Little Mermaid: Follow your dreams. Be who you want to be. But, as my wife pointed out, Ariel’s actions almost cause her father to be trapped forever by a sea witch, so following your dreams comes with a risk.
  • The Rescuers Down Under: You’re small. The mission is big. Better get started.
  • Beauty and the Beast: A prince is transformed into a beast so that his appearance matches his cruel and shallow soul. Like Pinocchio, he has to learn to act human before he is allowed to be one again.
  • Aladdin: Aladdin tries to be whoever he wants and it utterly fails! But, on the other hand, he does get to be the Sultan’s son-in-law in the end…
  • The Lion King: You can’t run away from your responsibilities without causing a massive famine.
  • Pocahontas: Been so long since I’ve seen this one that I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s quite pantheistic.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Same. No memory.
  • Hercules: Pride goes before a fall.
  • Mulan: I get why Christians don’t like this one. A woman wearing the costumes of war, etc. But, in the end, Mulan reverts to the natural state of things and becomes a woman again.
  • Tarzan: This is a weird one. Tarzan does not become a man (which he absolutely should do), but neither does he get to be whoever he wants to be. He prefers the status quo (plus Jane in a jungle bikini).
  • The Emperor’s New Groove: Another selfish prince transformed. He can only become human again after he’s changed.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire: A weird one. Man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or something like that.
  • Lilo & Stitch: I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s a cartoon. Family is whomever you love.
  • Treasure Planet: I really don’t know what to say about this one.
  • Brother Bear: Selfish person transformed into animal to learn a valuable lesson. I can’t even remember what happens at the end.
  • Home on the Range: Never seen it. Never will.
  • Meet the Robinsons: Keep moving forward.
  • Bolt: Get in touch with the real world.
  • The Princess and the Frog: Humans-turned-animals learn a lesson.
  • Tangled: Selfish thief comes to care about something other than himself. Also, like Samson’s strength, Rapunzel’s power was never really tied to her hair.
  • Frozen: Elsa is cursed with ice powers and condemned for her thoughtlessness, but of course, all anyone remembers is “Let It Go.”
  • Moana: Kids should accept their ancestry and pursue their assigned tasks, whether their dumb parents like it or not. Still going back and forth on this one.

This is a haphazard analysis, to be sure, but I hope it demonstrates that Disney movies aren’t always as villainous as they’re made out to be.

Classical and Christian Education

(You can listen to the talk itself here.)

Christian Education

In his book Teacher in America, the French-American writer Jacques Barzun explains why he prefers to write about “teaching” rather than “education”:

The advantage of [the word] ‘teaching’ is that in using it you must recognize… that practical limits exist. You know by instinct that it is impossible to ‘teach’ democracy, or citizenship or a happily married life. I do not say that these virtues and benefits are not somehow connected with good teaching. They are, but they occur as by-products. They come, not from a course, but from a teacher; not from a curriculum, but from a human soul.

Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit someone who thinks that education is the solution to all the trouble in the world. This is true only if we hold to a certain definition of “education,” that is, one soul shaping another. Of course, we all need our souls to be shaped in the right way, and that would make the world a better place. The problem comes when we confuse “education” with what happens in schools between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Barzun illustrates the difference by saying,

[Education] is a lifelong discipline of the individual by himself, encouraged by a reasonable opportunity to lead a good life. Education here is synonymous with civilization… [which] is a long slow process which cannot be ‘given’ in a short course. No one in his senses would affirm that Schooling is the hope of the world.

I want to use this discrimination between education and schooling to talk about Christian education. First, I’ll give three principles for Christian education, as Barzun defines it: “the lifelong discipline of the individual by himself.” Then I’ll talk a little about Christian education in the sense we normally use the phrase, which is what Barzun calls “schooling.”

The first principle of Christian education is that the parents are responsible for the education of their children — specifically, the father is responsible (Deut. 6, Eph. 6, the whole book of Proverbs). Parents must bring up their children in such a way that “lifelong self-discipline” becomes a possibility. Of course, parents can and should ask for help doing this difficult task. It would be a mistake to think that you could shape your child’s soul all by yourself. You are one of many shapers: teachers, mentors, friends, habits, practices, liturgies, entertainment, and self-reflection. You, the parent, are not the only one educating your child, but you, the parent, are the one who will be held responsible.

The second principle of Christian education is that a student will become like his master. Because knowledge is more than just information, teachers always communicate more than mere facts. They give a part of themselves to their students. The most influential ingredient in anyone’s education is the character of the person who educated them. You become like your teachers. Your children will become like their teachers (and, for kids, that includes more than just the person standing at the front of the classroom). When choosing a church, a school, a neighborhood, a city, ask yourself whether you want your children to become like the people there.

Lastly, the Bible teaches that Christ is at the center of all things. (Col. 1, John 1) If a comprehensive education means learning about the world, no education is complete without Christ. He is the keystone that allows the whole arch to stand.

Notice that there’s nothing here about content or methods. You have a responsibility to give your child a Christian education, and you can’t do that by sending them off to a Christian school. Going to school is just one part of education. You can’t give your child a Christian education by purchasing the right online curriculum. An online curriculum doesn’t shape a person’s soul.

I hope that you find relief in what I’m saying. You don’t need a Christian school to give your child a Christian education. It may help, but it’s not required. Hopefully, at a Christian school, you’d find men and women of good character, who will teach your child to become like them. Hopefully, at a Christian school, your child would learn to know Christ and His creation. But a Christian school is not required.

Classical Schools

If I had to guess, I’d say that many, if not most, of you think of “classical education” as the gold standard. I went to a classical high school. I teach at a classical school. I’m a big fan of classical education.

As a side note, it’s probably worth asking whether or not, since education is a life-long pursuit, someone can be “classically educated.” I would say, yes, but not at school. Thirteen years of old books and Latin can have a profound effect on you, but if a recent graduate believed himself to be “educated,” I’d say he didn’t learn anything. If a student, upon graduating, said to himself, “Man, I don’t know anything. I better learn,” that would be a success. The desire to learn and the skills to do so are a good indicator that the student has indeed been classically educated.

Classical education really just means studying the “classics,” which used to mean Greek and Roman literature, and now includes old books from all kinds of subjects. There are several benefits to classical education:

  1. The ancients and medievals tended to think of knowledge as a unified whole, so, by reading their works, students will assume the same.
  2. The same thinkers loved knowledge because they believed it brought them closer to virtue. Modern-day people aren’t accustomed to pursuing virtue.
  3. Reading old books brings Western history and civilization before the eyes of students. Modern people love to pretend that they invented everything. All problems are new problems, and therefore it’s up to us to come up with a solution. A few years of reading old books should be enough to demonstrate that not only are our problems not new, many of them already have solutions. We’ve just forgotten them. (Example?)
  4. Lastly, by its nature, classical education focuses on the things that have lasted. Age doesn’t automatically make a thing good, but good things tend to last, and the longer they last, the more respect we should pay them.

I do think that these benefits fit our definition of “education.” But a classical school can only point students in the direction of these things. A school cannot “educate” because it is not a person.

The brand of classical schooling that most of us are familiar with is the Dorothy Sayers model, which applies the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric to the stages of a child’s development. Young children memorize easily, so they are given the “grammar” of different subjects. Middle-schoolers like to argue, so they are placated with “dialectic” or logic. High schoolers like to express themselves, so they are given the tools of rhetoric. From what I can tell, it seems to work.

The thing that many people miss about Sayers’ model is that, when it comes to actual content, she is mostly agnostic. She makes some suggestions, but makes it clear they are suggestions. Her main point is that we should teach students to teach themselves, a goal which by nature must be content agnostic. Given that, and given the benefits of classical education I outlined above, here are some critiques of classical schools, as well as some suggestions. How can we make our classical schools more conducive to a Christian education?

Latin

In my experience, no subject in a classical school gives students as much trouble as Latin. It’s just soul-crushing. Learning a second language may be the most mind-opening experience you can have. That’s what makes it so valuable, but also what makes it so difficult. Teaching a student another language forces them to toy with the basis of their thought, which is always uncomfortable.

I love Latin. I wrote my college thesis on Latin. I’ve taught Latin. I take great pleasure in reading Latin. But I think it’s overemphasized in classical schools. (Sayers herself doesn’t say Latin is necessary, just that she prefers it.) Learning a second language is important, if only to introduce children to the idea of other languages, but you’re not going to get very far in Latin with second graders unless you have an exceptional teacher. Students regularly tell me things like, “I’ve taken eight years of Latin and don’t know it at all.”

Here’s my advice: save Latin for high school. It’s a crucial part of a classical education, but you can learn plenty of Latin in three years. In elementary school, I would start with Hebrew. Have the kids memorize the Psalms and the opening chapters of Genesis in Hebrew. Forget about grammar and teach pure memorization (reading and writing). Add a modern language (Spanish or French) if you want. In middle-school, teach Greek.

Music

The Greeks and Romans gave us plenty of good literature, but they have given us almost no good music. Music is part of our Christian heritage that we are woefully undereducated in. At some schools, music is not even offered, let alone required. At others, it’s an elective or a once-a-week activity. The reason given for this lack of emphasis is that some children just aren’t musical. That logic will get you nowhere with a math or science teacher, and ought to make a music teacher laugh in your face. God’s people sing. Get over it.

Young children pick up music easily. Puberty makes everyone self-conscious, especially boys whose voices are changing. But even when your voice is unreliable, your fingers still work. Choose an instrument. Learn to read music and add chords to melodies. Analyze a piece of music the same way you’d analyze a math problem or a poem. And, in the rhetoric stage, write your own.

Bible

Bible is almost always the Achilles heel of a Christian school. Christian schools (at least, evangelical ones) are expected to be non-denominational in practice, if not in name. Bible class is de-emphasized on the rationale that “the students are getting Bible during Sunday school.” If there is any kind of worship service at all, it is a chapel service with happy-clappy tunes and a boring talk.

Classical schools need to make the Bible the center of their curriculum. I don’t mean sprinkling a little Bible reading on their lesson plans. I mean a rigorous Bible class that asks students to read the Bible like they would any other text: with attention to details and poetic figures, allusions and patterns. That Bible class should be required every year, along with biblical liturgy woven throughout the school day.

Obviously, much of this needs to be fleshed out. And many people are already having conversations about these issues, which is very encouraging. A truly classical Christian model would be constantly seeking improvement.

A Man Taps Out a Psalm or Two

I grew up in a church that took the psalms seriously. We used a combined hymnal and psalter and each Sunday sang liberally from both halves. It was a great concern of the church leadership that the congregation become familiar with the entire book of Psalms, but it was slow going. Teaching anything to a church takes a while. Teaching them to sing is a years-long process.

As Alastair Roberts says in the video below, Christians need a fuller and less abbreviated relationship with the psalms, since the psalms, sung in their entirety, teach us how to navigate the peaks and valleys of life.

It’s a grand idea, but how does it work in practice? How does a music minister go about teaching the entirety of Psalm 68 to a congregation? A repetitive, metrical version would be easy to learn, but wouldn’t communicate the various sections of the psalm. A through-composed version, which includes the whole psalm in a more or less literal translation, is tougher to learn and almost impossible for a large congregation to sing well. How about good old chanting? Rare indeed is the 21st-century parishioner who doesn’t need a significant amount of coaching to handle a chant.

The question is how to translate Alastair’s (very good) theological point into an actionable plan for pastors and musicians. Answering that question – or, at least, approaching an answer – is one of the reasons I decided to start a yearly music colloquium called Psalm Tap. (Big props to Jarrod Richey for getting this off the ground.) Psalm Tap is where pastors, musicians, and interested laypeople will discuss the nuts and bolts of teaching and composing church music, with a particular focus on the psalms.

Psalm-singing will be a big focus at the colloquium, but other topics are on the table, such as whether we should use books or bulletins for music, what kinds of instruments are appropriate in worship, and how a church can pay for their high aesthetic vision. I anticipate strong opinions and good fun.

The colloquium is free. If you’re in Louisiana in late June, please join us.

UPDATE: Thanks to some health issues, I won’t be attending the colloquium this year. But don’t let that stop you from going. ‘Twill be a grand old time regardless.

A Man Pursues Holiness

I have just finished reading J. C. Ryle’s fat book Holiness. Ryle’s style is a shade pompous for my taste, but he does pack a lot of richness in these pages. Here are a few quotes that leapt out at me.

A religion which costs nothing is worth nothing.

I wish to be as broad as the Bible, neither less nor more.

On sin:

Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day.

The more real grace men have in their hearts, the deeper is their sense of sin.

On death & resurrection:

Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin, and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects.

Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven, it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.

Death works no change. The grave makes no alteration. Each will rise again with the same character in which he breathed his last. Where will our place be if we are strangers to holiness now?

Nothing, surely, is so likely to prepare us for that heaven where Christ’s personal presence will be all, and that glory where we shall meet Christ face to face, as to realize communion with Christ, as an actual living person here on earth. There is all the difference in the world between an idea and a person.

Of all the things that will surprise us in the resurrection morning, this I believe will surprise us most: that we did not love Christ more before we died.