Advent Listening No. 6

It’s sunny in Birmingham today, which makes carols about snow and darkness seem less appropriate for the season. Today, I give you one of the many light and bouncy segments of Vivaldi’s Gloria, “Domine, Fili unigenite.”

Advent Listening No. 5

As you can tell, I love Christmas music that can be sung in a group, but my Christmas spirit isn’t bound by one genre. Don Chaffer of Waterdeep wrote a nativity musical several years ago called The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby and it’s a rare month when the soundtrack isn’t played in our house at least once.

It’s a Christmas musical, of course, but the song below is particularly appropriate for Advent. In it, Mary does what any God-fearing woman would do and demands that the Most High keep His promises. It’s been so long. “If you won’t deliver us,” she says, “let us leave.”

I want to be delivered.
I want to be set free.
I want to get across those waters;
That’s what was promised to me.
Wandering the desert,
A wilderness of shame,
Drunk on worries of everyday life,
We’ve almost forgotten our name.
I’m half afraid this is the story
Someone will tell
Of how we fell ill, but our former glory
Would not make us well.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.

What does it take to wake you,
To see you raise your hand?
To hear your justice roll,
Your thundering command?
‘Cause hoping and never receiving,
It wears a heart out.
I used to feel full of believing;
Now I’m emptied by doubt.

Don’t make me wait ‘til after I’m gone.
If you won’t deliver us, let us leave.
If you chose another people, and you’re moving on,
Just save us all the trouble of trying to believe,
And let your people go.
Let your people go.
Just let your people go,
And say goodbye.

Advent Listening No. 3

Though it appears in quite a few hymnals, “This Little Babe” doesn’t often appear in Christmas programs. Robert Southwell’s lyrics are wonderful, but maybe a bit too bellicose for neighborhood caroling.

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His tiny breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.

His camp is builded in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His army makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps the charge now sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to His tents, the place of might.
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy Guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heav’nly Boy!

My favorite version of this carol is Benjamin Britten’s, which you can listen to below. I found many stunning records, but I particularly like this one because A) the singers are children and B) they are British. French and Scandinavian choirs just don’t sound the same.

Advent Listening No. 2

Today, listen to the medieval Christmas hymn “Personent hodie” sung by John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers.

Personent hodie,
Voces puerulae,
Laudantes iucunde,
Qui nobis est natus,
Summo Deo datus,
Et de vir vir vir,
Et de vir vir,
Et de virgineo,
Ventre procreatus.

In mundo nascitur,
Pannis involvitur,
Praesepi ponitur,
Stabulo brutorum,
Rector supernorum,
Perdidit dit dit,
Perdidit dit,
Perdidit spolia,
Princeps Infernorum.

Magi tres venerunt;
Munera offerunt;
Parvulum inquirunt,
Stellulam sequendo,
Ipsum adorando,
Aurum, thus thus thus,
Aurum, thus thus,
Aurum, thus et myrrham,
Ei offerendo.

Omnes clericuli,
Pariter pueri,
Cantent ut Angeli:
“Advenisti mundo,
Laudes tibi fundo,
Ideo o o,
Ideo o,
Ideo: Gloria,
In excelsis Deo.”

On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
to the Lord, Christ our King,
born on earth to save us;
him the Father gave us.

His the doom, ours the mirth;
when he came down to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth;
ox and ass beside him
from the cold would hide him.

God’s bright star, o’er his head,
Wise Men three to him led;
kneel they low by his bed,
lay their gifts before him,
praise him and adore him.

On this day angels sing;
with their song earth shall ring,
praising Christ, heaven’s King,
born on earth to save us;
peace and love he gave us.

Advent Listening No. 1

Christmas is a season of music. From the moment Gabriel addresses Mary, the news of the coming Savior makes people burst into song.

As for you people out there who don’t like Christmas music, my guess is that you either hate the sentimentality or that you’re just tired of hearing the same old carols sung over and over, year after year. I hope to change your mind by giving you twenty-eight examples of Advent and Christmas music that are unsentimental or, at the very least, off the beaten path.

What better way to start than with one of Bach’s Christmas cantatas? (Is that the plural of cantata?) I sang Jauchzet frohlocket at New Saint Andrews back in the day and it remains one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music. For Advent Listening No. 1, I chose the opening chorus, but I recommend listening to the entire thing if you can. You may recognize a few of the choruses as the tunes of popular hymns.

Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!

Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day,
praise what today the highest has done!
Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation,
begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation!
Serve the highest with glorious choirs,
let us honor the name of our ruler!

Lyrics and translation plucked from here.

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.

The Charge of the Leithart Brigade

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called “The Death of the Old Year.” It had the cadences of a ballad, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time (or I was avoiding doing something), so I picked up my guitar and plucked out a tune to go along with the words. I had so much fun, I decided to try it with a few more poems. My wife suggested I write nine more and compile them in an album called TENnyson. Much to her disappointment, I more or less ran out of inspiration after seven. For now, the album has been demoted to an EP. You can listen to demos of all the tracks here.

Track list:
1. The Lady of Shalott
2. Ulysses
3. The Charge of the Light Brigade
4. The Splendor Falls
5. The Death of the Old Year
6. In Memoriam
7. Crossing the Bar