In Exodus 31, the artists Bezalel and Aholiab fashion decorations for the tabernacle under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In the very next chapter, Aaron fashions the golden calf.
Making is not in itself holy.
In Exodus 31, the artists Bezalel and Aholiab fashion decorations for the tabernacle under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In the very next chapter, Aaron fashions the golden calf.
Making is not in itself holy.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me whether Christian kids really need to study pagan literature. “Isn’t the Bible more important than immoral books written by Romans and Greeks?” he asked. My reply: “Absolutely.” The Bible is more important. An old woman living alone in the middle of Nebraska who reads her Bible every day is wiser than a classroom full of godless Ivy League Classics professors. But pious spinster and overeducated atheist aren’t the only two options. Many Christian kids today have the opportunity to study both the Bible and the works of Homer, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil. The question is, given that opportunity, should they take it?
Let me say at the outset that “classical education” and “Christian education” are not the same thing. You can have one without the other, and the latter is infinitely more important than the former. “Classical education” originally meant studying the classics: the language and literature of the Greeks and the Romans. Without those pre-Christian works, an education isn’t classical, but it can still be Christian.
I suspect that most Christian parents send their children to classical Christian schools not because they love the classics but because they see these schools as stalwartly conservative and less likely to cave in to cultural trends. It’s probably true that classical schools are less likely to cave, since anyone who commits to studying old things necessarily has less time to pay attention to passing fashions. That doesn’t mean other schools will cave, however. I’m sure there are faithful schools out there that are not classical. If a Christian family is uncomfortable reading pagan literature, they can choose another school and maintain a clear conscience.
That said, I believe that there are good reasons for Christians to study classical literature. First, there’s the concept of what might be called “free grace” or “natural revelation.” Even the most savage human beings retain a hazy memory of a time when man walked with God in the Garden. This means that pagans can figure out some true things about the world, even about God Himself, and we shouldn’t be afraid of digging around in their books for that buried treasure. After all, we do the same in books written by nominal Christians like Melville, Emerson, and Twain. Is a pious pagan any worse than these? And if we do start removing “objectionable books” from the curriculum, where do we stop? Should we examine an author’s Christian pedigree before reading what he wrote? Worldview should not be the determining factor when deciding the value of a book. Once we start examining an author’s ideology to determine the value of his poetry, we may as well give up studying literature altogether.
Second, we should study classical literature as a broad cultural application of the fifth commandment. Just as we honor the man and woman who brought us into the world, we honor the men and women who brought them into the world and the country that produced them and the history that produced that country. For centuries, those who read and wrote and taught in the Western world drew on the literature of the Greeks and Romans. In practical terms, knowing classical languages and literature is a passport to vast areas of our culture, to the point of effectively doubling a person’s access to knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of words across dozens of languages can be traced back to Rome, not to mention the overabundance of classical allusions at every level of our society (Amazon, anyone?). There is a sense in which the very thoughts in our heads are built out of materials shaped by the minds of Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest. We may wish this were not the case, just as we may wish we had been born in a different time, in a different place, or a to a different family. But here we are, stuck with this heritage.
Finally, we should study classical literature because it’s what Christians have always done. The apostle Paul, whose life was completely transformed by Jesus, was familiar enough with the Greek poets to quote them on at least two occasions (Acts 17, Titus 1). In the fourth century, Emperor Julian, who renounced the faith, passed a law to stop Christians from teaching Greek and Roman literature. This tells us two things: 1) Christians taught that stuff and 2) they taught it in such a way as to enrage a pagan emperor. (I’m grateful to Wes Callihan for this particular insight.) Clearly, pagan literature can be put to good use. Remember that it was the descendants of Cain who invented musical instruments.
One could argue that Paul and the rest drew on pagan literature because they had nothing else. Perhaps we should sweep that culture from the earth and replace with our own based on the Bible. This is an excellent suggestion, so excellent in fact that Christians began the process almost two thousand years ago. In his biography of Saint Francis, Chesterton describes the so-called Dark Ages as a purgation, the time when the spiritual diseases of paganism were expelled from the system. Christians in these times worked and prayed and cleaned and scrubbed until the Gospel was pushed into all corners of the globe, and still they decided that pagan literature must be taught. It was medieval monks, soaked in Scripture, who decided the Aeneid must be preserved.
I suspect that a culture that tossed out everything but the Gospel would soon discover that they had somehow managed to bring everything else along with them. It’s the nature of good news to spread. Christians have been told to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth, which certainly includes the works of Homer, Plato, and all the rest.
I’m making my way through J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and will be posting some of my notes here. Describing the woeful tendency of liberalism to quash all higher aspirations in favor of “drab utilitarianism,” Machen gives this example:
In the state of Nebraska, for example, a law is now in force according to which no instruction in any school in the state, public or private, is to be given through the medium of a language other than English, and no language other than English is to be studied even as a language until the child has passed an examination before the county superintendent of education showing that the eighth grade has been passed. In other words, no foreign language, apparently not even Latin or Greek, is to be studied until the child is too old to learn it well. It is in this way that modern collectivism deals with a kind of study which is absolutely essential to all genuine mental advance. The minds of the people of Nebraska, and of any other states where similar laws prevail, are to be kept by the power of the state in a permanent condition of arrested development.Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
What is curious about this example is that it is the exact opposite of what today’s liberal would advocate. Public school teachers and boards in many states are strong proponents of teaching in multiple languages, especially Spanish, and of striking down English-only laws. I can’t imagine a law being passed that would prevent a school from teaching a non-English language before eighth grade. (In fact, the law Machen refers to was revoked in 1923, the same year Christianity and Liberalism was published.)
How can it be that what Machen saw as an example of liberalism would now be seen as an example of extreme conservatism? My guess is that he would argue that A) is it still utilitarian (bi-lingual education results in higher achieving graduates, which results in higher achieving citizens, etc.) and B) that both banning and requiring multiple languages in school are examples of the state meddling in the private affairs of citizens.
Alan Jacobs has not responded to my post (the nerve!), but in an attempt to treat him as fairly as possible, I draw your attention to this post about his love for Jesus — or perhaps more accurately, Jesus’s love for him.
Every day I want to evade him, to look the other way, and when I do my faith wanes and weakens; but when I look, when I draw near, I remember what I’m all about, what the world is all about. When I look towards Jesus I am caught and held, even if sometimes shattered by what I see.
If you’re no stranger to me, you’re no stranger to Alan Jacobs. I’ve only met him in person once or twice, but I read everything he posts on his blog and his essays when I have time. His book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was jammed so full of reading recommendations, I almost started it again as soon as I finished. Reading a book or essay by Dr. Jacobs sometimes feels like watching a juggler perform. He has an amazing ability to weave multiple literary ideas into a coherent pattern, and just when you think you’ve been impressed, he brings in another book and sets it whirling. I would love to take a class from him.
Christian people, books, and ideas appear frequently, almost inevitably, in Dr. Jacobs’s writing, but he rarely talks about what it means to live as a Christian or what standard a Christian ought to operate by. When he does, I often find myself cocking my head and going, “Huh.” In one post, which I can’t find right now, he said that his Christianity informs his life hardly at all, a statement to which the only right response is, “That doesn’t sound like Christianity.” After reading many similar posts over the years, I have come to the conclusion that my main issue with Dr. Jacobs is not so much a quibble over theology as it is a disagreement over the Bible. In a recent post, he says this:
It’s also fascinating to note how little the apostles understand the message they been entrusted with. They know that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, and they know that the Christ’s own people rejected him and demanded his death – but beyond that they’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean. The idea that what Jesus offers them (and all of us) is God’s limitless grace is rarely mentioned. It’s there, but only in tentative and vaguely articulated form.
I didn’t pick this post because it’s particularly egregious, only because it’s recent. He makes an interesting point about the psychology of the apostles, but then he says, “They’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean.” I assume Dr. Jacobs is saying that Peter and the rest had only a vague understanding of God’s grace until Paul fleshed it out for them.
I’m not opposed to the idea that God’s people gain understanding over time. Just think of the wealth of commentary and tradition built up over the past two thousand years. In many ways, the church fathers were, in fact, church babies. My disagreement, I think, is actually a different stance toward the historical figures in the Bible. I assume that the words, decisions, and actions of the people of God are right, unless Scripture explicitly says otherwise. The zeal of the apostles post-Pentecost was not wrong or even misguided. Even the zeal of Apollos was not wrong, though his did have to be redirected (Acts 18:26). When we read the book of Acts, we shouldn’t assume we know something Peter doesn’t. Instead of smiling indulgently at his cute naivete, we should ask ourselves why the apostles spent so much time preaching Jesus as Messiah, rejected by His own people. Surely there’s an explanation beyond “They didn’t know any better.” We should be humble and charitable in our interpretation, a position Dr. Jacobs would certainly support in other contexts.
As I said, this particular example doesn’t bother me that much. But it does reveal something about the way Dr. Jacobs views the Bible, which is the view of most American evangelicals (I believe Jacobs is Anglican, which makes him evangelical, I think?). According to this common view, the Bible is a historical record of how human beings fail. Everything from Genesis to Jude describes God’s attempts to communicate lovingly and graciously and being given constant cold shoulders. Jesus came to save us despite our best attempts to ignore Him. As Dr. Jacobs’s friend Francis Spufford puts it, we all have the Human Propensity to F*** Things Up, and without Christ, not one of us could stand. So far, so orthodox. But this view gives rise to a rather awkward question: If the Bible is nothing more than a record of human failure, why is it so long? Couldn’t we have a few chapters here and there (the Fall, David and Bathsheba, the book of Amos) and then cut straight to Jesus? Evangelical Christians seem remarkably uncurious about the Bible and what it has to do with their everyday life.
It’s true that the actual people in the Bible did not know the full picture — Eve thought Abel was the promised seed (Gen. 4:25) — but that doesn’t mean that the full picture wasn’t present. The whole Bible is one prophetic book, not created by the will of man, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), which means God’s limitless grace is as present in the story of the Flood as it is in the letters of Paul. That means the Flood story is still important and we need to study it. We don’t forget the candles just because the sun has risen. Candlelight is light, and remembering how it held back the darkness helps us understand the nature of the sun.
The thing that makes me nervous is how often Christians who doubt the power and wisdom of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, quickly drop other points of Christian dogma. They become squiffy on Creation, on biblical chronology, on Christian economics, on politics, on marriage, on the ordination of women, on abortion, ad inferna. Jesus doesn’t talk about most of these things, after all, and Paul can be controversial, which leaves us wandering through the philosophers, picking out whatever strikes our fancy (and won’t get us in too much trouble). The only antidote to such theological cherry-picking is embracing the wisdom of the whole Bible, whether the embrace makes us uncomfortable or not.
Despite our disagreement, I value Dr. Jacobs’s writing highly and hope he continues to poke his finger in all the right eyes (including conservative ones). I should also mention that he doesn’t easily fit into any camp, and if somehow this blog post swims into his ken, he may very well take issue with the way I’ve presented him. He will do so kindly, I’m sure.
All that said, I urge him to find a solid book on biblical theology and spend some time reading it as charitably as possible. (Here’s a good one.)
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.)
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.
(You can listen to the talk itself here.)
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.
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:
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.