This is a good video.

We homeschool and participate in Classical Conversations, the organization behind this video. Latin is not easy to learn or to teach. I have tried to learn it. I once led a seminar for homeschoolers part of which meant I had to address the question of how one teaches Latin. Fortunately I recruited several people to help me. I still don’t know Latin. But I agree with everything in this video. It’s a good thing to learn Latin and to teach your kids Latin.

If you know someone who is thinking of learning Latin, or adding it to their homeschooling curriculum, or struggling with either learning or teaching Latin, share this video with them.

It is interesting to hear these people, parents and teachers, talk about Catholic liberal education:

For years, beginning long before we became Catholic, we began to homeschool our children (which also meant homeschooling ourselves). After several years we got connected and involved with an educational program called Classical Conversations founded by Leigh Bortins. It is an excellent program, and I would encourage anyone interested in homeschooling to take a close look at what it has to offer. It is not Catholic, but it is basically Christian, and in many ways basically orthodox for Catholics. I also had the privilege of writing the first draft of the science chapter in Leigh Bortin’s book The Question. And I spent a year with Andrew Kern of Circe Institute studying Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and more. Kern is another significant voice in the classical education movement. As a family we are committed to the idea of a Christian classical education for our children and ourselves. In short, we know something about what a classical approach to education offers, and how it is a kind of corrective, even a profound and radical challenge, to the prevalence of the typical anti-human modern education of our society.

The kind of education discussed in the video above follows the classical education model — at least it has a similar mindset. In fact, I believe one can say that a truly Catholic, a truly classical, and a truly liberal education are all the same if understood from a biblically and anthropologically truthful understanding.

I wish there was Catholic Classical Education in our area — whether for homeschooling like the Classical Conversations program, or a more formal brick & mortar school. The local Catholic schools in our area, though having the reputation of being a little bit better quality than the local government schools, are definitely not classical — and therefore not nearly as Catholic as they believe themselves to be. Actually, at their core they are modernist with some Catholic veneer. Our eldest went for two years at the local Catholic high school and it was a bust. I feel sorry, in a sense, for the faculty and administration at that school. They are products of our modern Catholic culture, meaning they are modernist and American before they are Catholic.

They also are inheritors of the post Vatican II reality. Take away all the nuns and religious who used to be the teachers (because the draining of religious from the Church) and you now have to hire “professionals,” which leads the double whammy of much higher salaries, and therefore higher tuitions, and modernist thinking. In that sense, these Catholic schools too often represent the anti-human educational philosophy more than they realize. Into those schools come students from any family who can afford to pay, which means they are no longer serving the local Catholic community, most of whom cannot afford the tuition. This produces a student body of only about half Catholic. And of the Catholics, only about a third actually believe the tenets of the Church. (Hopefully the numbers are better in your area.) This situation has produced a “Catholic education” system that is not truly Catholic, certainly not classical, basically a poorer education than its reputation warrants.

God bless the folks in the video above who recognize the need for truly Catholic education, and the blessings that follow.

Here is a talk on the family by Michael Matt of The Remnant newspaper. Those of you who know of him know he is a staunch traditionalist within the Catholic Church. I am currently of two minds when it comes to the traditionalist position. Having come from a Protestant background I have a strong allergy to anything that smacks of protest. However, I do find myself sympathizing a great deal with the traditionalists.

I am curious what other think of his take on the state of the world, the Church, and the family today, as well as his thoughts on how to combat the problems he outlines. Is Michael Matt on target, or not? Does his understanding of our current situation make sense or is it too one way or the other?

As for The Remnant newspaper, I find it an interesting resource. Sometimes it’s a bit too shrill for me, and sometimes I find myself saying, “Stop fretting so much and trust in God.” But I also like their history and, while they oppose much of what is going on in the Church today, they remain faithful Catholics and in communion with the Church and the Pope. This, I think, is very important.

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

We homeschool. This puts in a strange place within our society — a good place I believe, but not always understood. I wrote this piece below, in a slightly different form, several years ago (before we entered the Catholic Church) in response to a tendency I see within the homeschooling world, and which I feel is still relevant today.

There is a trend within the subculture of homeschooling* that is based, in large part, upon separation from society at large. This makes some sense. Homeschoolers are often defined, to a large degree, as people who want to pull their children out of mainstream society and protect them from “the world.” Certainly not all homeschoolers are this way, and I hope we are not, but it has some appeal given the many troubles this world presents.

Recently we attended a Christian homeschooling conference. As you might imagine we saw all kinds of Christians, from the young hip couple with their cool glasses and lattes to the families with 6+ children all wearing 19th century prairie outfits. The conference had numerous speakers and work sessions. One of the keynote speakers struck me as the kind of homeschooling parent I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, and I only heard the one talk (or I should say over-the-top performing-preacher show talk), but I was encouraged by his talk to more clearly define an aspect of why we homeschool and why some of our reasons stand in contradiction to his.

He began by lauding his father for taking his family to an island away from “the world” and homeschooling them. In other words, our keynote speaker was raised on an island cut off from the taint and spoilage of the wider world. He went on to say that that was a great thing and we should not be afraid to separate our children from the world on “islands” where they can be protected and safe. If you are like me you might be chafing at this idea, but it is not unwarranted, and I want to give the idea its due.

This world we live in is most certainly full of may horrible things — war, famine, crime, and all kinds of ugliness. There are also many competing ideas that challenge one’s own beliefs. A Christian parent who is interested in their children knowing God as they themselves know God may want to protect their children from those competing ideas for as long as possible. The same goes for any parent who has a worldview to which they cling. I can understand the desire to keep one’s children away from the corrosive influence of the world. To do so feels like being responsible, and in some cases it certainly is. So I know where our keynote speaker is coming from. I know that feeling. But there is more to the picture.

The concept of “the world” is a big deal in Christian teaching. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. John the Apostle said “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Paul the Apostle said “do not be conformed to this world.” There is a lot more to be said, and I do not intend to unpack the biblical concept of “the world” here, but most Christians know there is this thing called the world which they must avoid in some way. Christian homeschoolers might see pulling their kids out of public school as pulling them out of the world. Christian families who move to the country far from urban areas may believe they are removing themselves from the world in some meaningful way. Certainly to raise one’s family on an island would feel like the world is far away and one’s family is safe.

However, when John says “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world,” we see that the world is not so much a physical entity as it is a heart condition or a spirit. Also, when Jesus said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world,” it appears his intention was not fleeing the world but to bring it light. Elsewhere in scripture Christ followers are called to be light in the world and salt of the earth. And when we read that “God so loved the world that he gave us His son,” we get the idea that our stance towards the world may not be so simple. We may not be able to separate ourselves from the world as easily as we think for “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” comes with us wherever we go, even to an island. Also, we cannot be light or salt to the world if we decide to have nothing to do with the world. And we certainly cannot love the world as God loves the world if our stance is to flee the world which, as we have seen, may not be so easy anyway.

At that homeschoolers conference it became clear that the world could be seen most clearly in such things as 1) cities, 2) public schools, 3) government, and 4) anything other than far right politics. If one didn’t know better one could conclude that homeschooling is all about 1) getting out of the city to the country – a kind of “back to the garden” idea, 2) avoiding any kind of public education, including any education or activities that has public monies attached to it, such as a city funded soccer league, 3) having nothing to do with government or public service unless it is to defend against liberals who want to impose laws on homeschooling, and 4) assuming a political stance and championing the values of such organizations as the Christian Coalition. I may be taking a somewhat extreme critical view here, but I honestly don’t think so. This is what I see coming from much of the Christian homeschool subculture and from our keynote speaker.

But those reasons are not our reasons.

One of the great blessings of Christian truth is the incredible freedom we have. As we love God and His values we find ourselves marveling at this world He created. This world of His includes all that we find, including the incredible variety of humanity and human creativity. We might and should grieve at the evil we see in the world, but we should also love the world. We should love the cities and the arts and the culture and the governments. Wisdom dictates that we do not love folly or evil or rebellion against God. On the other hand this world is full of God’s creative work, it is His sovereignty manifest in all things everywhere, and this world is full of the people He loves – which includes all people. We have the freedom to engage in this world head on. We also have the opportunity to be light and salt. This opportunity is a great privilege. As a parent I can choose to model light and salt, or I can model the act of withdrawal.

Another great blessing is that because I know God is sovereign I can engage in this world without fear. I can live in the city or in the country, work in private business, ministry, government, or public schools, listen to Christian or secular music, visit art galleries and museums, watch popular movies, and even drink, smoke, play cards and occasionally cuss, without fear. If Jesus is my example then I can eat dinner with the most worldly people. If Paul’s theology is correct then I can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Wisdom, and the pursuit of holiness will dictate how I live, and so will my consideration the weaker brother (and I too am a weaker brother), so I may choose not to do some or most of these things at times, or ever, but there is no need for fear. But I must say that having no fear is not the same as not being scared. A man may say he is not scared of the world, and that may be true, but he may still live in fear of the world. To take one’s family away from the world and live on an island because the world is a bad place is to live in fear of the world.

We are to fear God, not the world. Our battles are not with flesh and blood, but against evil spiritual powers — sin and Satan. And it is God who fights our battles. Our greatest weapons are faith, love, and prayer.

There is another kind of separation — the separation through ideology and stereotypes. On our keynote speaker’s website promoting his daily radio program he touts the following: “There are no psychiatrists, professional counsellors [sic], bureaucrats, and seminary professors. But you will find fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.” Other than spelling counselors wrong this quote says a lot. There is an attitude within some quarters of Christianity that sees psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors — along with scientists, social workers, and anyone from Hollywood — as being other than fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends. Not only is this a wrongly prejudiced perspective more indicative of a passionate narrow-mindedness than of wisdom, it is also a perspective indicative of fear. There has always been a class of persons who claim victim status though they are not victims in a meaningful sense. This class is also easily manipulated by those who point to the educated, or those in government, or big city dwellers, or those in the entertainment industry, as the victimizers. Some politicians can be quite good at doing this, and so are many preachers. Our keynote speaker not only claims the victim status but uses his talents to fan the flames of fear. Fear thrives in the world of stereotypes. And just like the religious leader who prays to God, thanking God that he is not like other people, we can all fall prey to a profound blindness. What we see in Jesus is someone hanging out with the sinners. We see someone not only reaching out to everyone, but doing so without fear, and not drawing lines between himself and the rest of humanity. And, ironically, it is the religious leaders — the upstanding citizens, moral agents, family lovers, Bible teachers — who criticized Jesus for just such activities.

Where does this leave us? Our confusion, like so much in Christianity, is to make the wrong distinctions and then fall into the pit of false religion and self-righteousness. We confuse the world with superficial distinctions as “psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors” rather than with a heart rooted in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The world, in this bad spiritual sense, is as much alive and thriving within Christianity as it is anywhere else. When it comes to worldliness there is often no distinction between the Hollywood movie star and the megachurch pastor. In fact we bring the world with us wherever we go, wherever there is humanity, even into the nuclear family unit (a modern entity that, arguably, is the source of many problems in comparison to the traditional large extended family living and working together — but this is not the place to dive into that subject). Only through the grace of God do we have any hope to be free of the world — and that freedom can come to a professional counselor/psychiatrist working for a government agency while moonlighting at a seminary and living downtown in the biggest city as it can come to the man barricading his family against the evils of the world in some distant wilderness. Grace be to God for our hope and freedom.

But what about my charge as a parent? It is one thing to be an adult confronting the ugliness of this world, it is another for a child. As a parent I must protect my children when appropriate. I must also guide them in wisdom. I would rather my children face into the harshness of reality, guided by my example, sometimes stumbling and struggling, but learning to see themselves for who they truly are and learning to love others where they are. I also want my children to grow up without fear. If we can walk through this life together, confronting the variety of human experience and choice, and do so hand in hand, I think my children might have a decent chance of knowing good from evil, of learning humbleness, of appreciating all that God has created, and learning that goodness comes not so much from trying to avoid the stain of the world as turning to God in genuine repentance. We have come to realize that fleeing the world and taking one’s family to an island, even if those actions are clothed in the finest Christian robes of piety, could very well be an act of rebellion against God. Not necessarily, but could be.

This is one reason we homeschool, and we do so within a city context, and we listen to all kinds of music and study all kinds of art, and we are interested in politics beyond narrow “Christian” agendas, and we appreciate MLK and Gandhi, and we appreciate revised histories when they offer clarity and truth, and we don’t believe one can homeschool true faith into any child, for faith is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit. And we also don’t think we’ve got it all right. All we can do is move forward in humbleness (which also is a gift), looking to God for grace and mercy, and seeking goodness the best we can.


* Like many different elements of our society, homeschoolers represent a kind of subculture. However, it would be incorrect to think of it as a single or homogeneous subculture. At best it is a subculture of subcultures, and may be better described as an eclectic group of families that have a rather unique similarity regardless, and sometimes in spite, of their many dissimilarities.

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My daughter Wilder Rose speaking of her music teacher and the joys he gave her, and her sorrow of losing such a good and fine teacher.

A couple of weeks ago my kids music teacher died. He was a brilliant, generous, uniquely gifted man who was loved by many people and many families in and beyond our town. He was primarily a percussionist who played in various bands, played many other instruments than drums, taught numerous students over the years, and also handbuilt wooden canoes.

A year ago we purchased a traditional drum kit for our son who was 6 years old at the time. We began looking for a drum teacher. This man came highly recommended. We had some worries because our son is young and prone to fidgetiness (some might say he’s a touch ADHD). However, this teacher was perfect for our son, working with his natural tendencies, and helping him discover the music within him. Then he offered to add our daughter for just a few dollars more. So we bought her a guitar. Our daughter is deeply musical and sings, plays piano and fiddle, and has great natural gifts in music. But as she began guitar something beautiful began to happen. Suddenly her musically talent blossomed like it had not before.

This man, a musician, husband, and wonderful teacher, gave my children, and our family, the gift of himself. After he died we cried and cried, and then we began to discover just how much he meant to so many other people in our community. Today we went to a memorial geared more towards his students, who are mostly kids. There was a drum circle, sharing, tears, laughter, and good fellowship.

The world needs more teachers like him. His loss, as is the loss of any human being’s life, is very significant, but our community also lost a special teacher. We also lost a wonderful musician.

As a Christian I know that this life is not the end. I know that death is the severing of one’s soul from one’s body, and that someday they shall be reunited. The memorial only addressed this sense of continuation in terms of us remembering him and carrying with us what he put into us through his teaching and his person–which is no small thing. But I realize that our society today adds to the natural difficulty of dealing with the tragedy and sorrow of death the lack of deeper knowledge of God’s goodness and the ultimate end in which we are made share.

I pray for his soul. I pray that God will have mercy on him, and bestow His graces upon his soul, if only for the generosity, kindness, and love he showed my kids.

Eternal Father,
we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.

We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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Christ said “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16a)

When are we sheep in the midst of wolves? Who are these wolves? Where are they?

Christians often see themselves as fighting against the world. An “us vs. them” mindset sadly prevails much of the time. (Sad because Christ died for the world, and like our savior, we too should die for the world.) We might even think of ourselves, and especially our children, as being like innocent sheep being sent out into a world full of wolves. Homeschooling parents especially like to think of public schools as being wolf dens; so they keep their children safe by keeping them close to home. We tend to see Churches and Christian establishments as havens from the wolfish world. But if that is the way we think, then we might miss a stern warning from Christ.

To whom was Christ speaking? His apostles, the twelve. What was he doing? He was sending them on a mini-mission, perhaps we should call it a training mission, to proclaim the gospel. Christ the teacher knew his apostles would be the first missionaries, taking the gospel to the world, so he was teaching them. He was giving them the opportunity to experience what proclaiming the gospel was going to be like while he was still with them, while they could still come back to him and debrief. He knew it would not be easy, and he gives them some specific instructions and the warning above. Let’s take a look at that verse above in its fuller context:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:5-23)

The answer to who and where the wolves are is this: The apostles are not to go into the world in the way we might think, but to go to those who already reside in the house of Israel. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So “the world” is not the world out there among the gentiles, but the world right there before them, among their own people. And therefore the wolves come from among them as well. Simply, the wolves are the Jewish religious leaders, the teachers of the Torah and the Law, the wise men, the kosher men, the good Jews, the embracers of of being Israelites, the good Jewish families, the upright citizens, the parents and siblings and children, the so-called lovers of God, etc., etc. If we can draw a comparison with us today, the wolves are the pastors and associate pastors and their wives (maybe especially), the deacons and elders, the church bake-sale organizers, the religious right and the religious left, the para-church enthusiasts, the Christians who bring their big floppy bibles with them to every meeting or conversation, the “I love Jesus and not religion” people, the successful Christian business persons, the fashion leaders, the social leaders, the Bible study leaders, the Christian school headmasters, the ones with a Bible verse always on the tip of their tongues, the quiet church ladies, the “real men love Jesus” guys, the arbiters of morals, the gatekeepers, the “prayer warriors”, the church youth activity chaperons, the concerned parents, and all the rest of us Christians who so easily confuse fear with love of God, who choose sacrifice over obedience, and who refuse to weep, mourn, or be poor in spirit.

In other words, the wolves are us if we do not abide in the light.

Preach and, more importantly, live the Gospel in the midst of these “good Christian” people who are really wolves and you will be torn to shreds and eaten alive; usually in the most unassuming and apparently innocent ways. You might even feel that you deserved it. The greatest enemies of Christians, apart from the Devil and his minions, are those who go by the name Christian yet who do not love God or the things of God. And yet, when they serve the Devil they believe they are serving God. When they eat lambs alive they claim they act only out of love. Remember how Christ chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” Geeze, Peter was only helping Jesus be the right kind of messiah. Jesus continued: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter would have been a wolf if not for the great love and mercy of Christ in his life. Peter had to learn what following Christ really meant.

If Peter then why not us? He would eventually be crucified for his authentic faith. Oh that we would have Peter’s faith.

One reason that we sometimes cannot tell the wolves from the lambs is that the wolves seem to be the best Christians. They really seem to be the ones who know, often emphatically so, what Christianity is all about. They are the ones who are good at using Christianese (that ubiquitous Christian sub-culture language), at dropping Bible verses in every other sentence, at piety, at being visible in the sub-culture, and saying how much Jesus is really important. They can also be wonderful family people, homeschooling their kids, leading Bible studies in their homes, planning and leading church activities, and much more. One way to spot a wolf is to look for the super-Christian in your midst who has taken it upon herself/himself to test other Christians to see if they really are strong enough believers, especially for leadership. They will quietly corner people, draw them aside, talk to them in private, and then drill them with questions like, “How do you define yourself as a Christian?” and “Do you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” and “What does it mean to be saved?” They will do this saying they only want to know where someone stands, to see if they are on the “same page.” And they will generally do this only to those who are not their personal friends, to people they don’t know closely, and especially to those who don’t look or talk like they do. And they will do this because they are protecting something, like their church or school, or worse, their reputation, and not ultimately for the benefit of the one being tested. Remember Christ was tested by the Pharisees (you brood of vipers) for the same reasons. These wolves appoint themselves as the gatekeepers. They see their actions as noble. It is not an unusual experience for a lamb to feel like an inadequate Christian in relation to the wolves.

One of the great problems with Christianity is that the Church is filled with wolves, mixed in with the lambs, eating people alive. (It is a problem, but perhaps it is by design as well.)

Here’s the rub: How do you know, truly know, if you are on one side or the other? How do you know if you are a lamb or a wolf? Do you love God or only think you do? Have you given your life to Christ or only believe you have? Do you know the truth or only think you do? Are you a lover of the things of God or only believe you are? Do you confuse merely being annoyed at life with mourning? Do you confuse anger that the world isn’t going your way with weeping? Do you confuse your feelings of being a “little man” in the face of big government with being poor in spirit? How are you to know? How is one to untangle oneself and see clearly?

Perhaps the only way to truly know is through suffering. Our faith is tested through suffering because we would not know if we had faith without the testing. (Know this: I cannot “test” your faith, only God can. And He does it for you, not for Him. Thus I can only, at best, surmise if you have genuine faith if I can truly witness how you deal with suffering. But I can never truly know. And it cannot come via hearsay.) Faith is not something you know just by claiming to know, rather it is something you discover. You don’t claim to love Jesus and that’s that. God tests you and you break and then run away, or you break and then grab hold of God. For lambs, knowing one has faith often comes from being eaten alive by wolves and seeing that their faith has not left them. For wolves, knowing one has faith comes from repentance, which is the only thing that can turn wolves into lambs. The thing is, true wolves cling ever more strongly to their “Christianity” but never repent. In fact, they see no need to repent since their wolfish actions are what fuel their self-righteousness and convince them of their faithfulness. Wolves win and claim the victory as God’s blessing. And yet,  suffering works for them as well. It works by giving wolves fodder for their cherished self-image. Lambs will cry out to God in their suffering, knowing they are unworthy of God’s mercy and love. Wolves will cry out as well, seeing their suffering as a badge of what must be their worthiness to suffer, their righteousness, that they must be a target for Satan because of their holy standing before God.

It is the wolf that thanks God that he is not like others.

It is the lamb who bows before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And so… I am no saint, and I know well how easy it is to to find fault in others and not in oneself. I am sure that I have been a wolf at times; probably far more often than I realize. The following words come from a guilty participant, who stood by rather than stood up.

Several months ago, in a private meeting, I sat in a room of wolves who were accusing a lamb of not being worthy to teach their children. This teacher is a believer, and genuine lover of God, a servant of Christ, and a truly excellent Christian classical teacher who gives tremendously out of love for the students. But he is different, a little eccentric, a little atypical; not at all like so many cardboard evangelical christians populating the scene today. And so they accused him of having insufficient faith, of not being enough of a believer, of not giving unambiguous, Baptist evangelical “orthodox”, tip-of-the-tongue answers (read: fundamentalist/baptist orthodoxy) to their testing. (I previously addressed some of this story here.) They said he’s a “nice guy”, but just not Christian enough to teach. The teacher’s response to this attack was one of the most Christ-like examples I have ever witnessed. I saw the comparison play out before my own eyes—their accusations, his loving and honest responses, his weeping. And I saw their stone-faced reactions—and I knew it was a scene of wolves tearing into a lamb. The accusers took the teacher’s emotional response as weakness rather than strength, and merely considered it fodder for their claims. They were blind and I believe they remain so – I do not believe they are as yet capable of seeing themselves as anything other than champions of the Gospel. (I later heard that one father took the teacher’s weeping in genuine sorrow as evidence the accused is not man enough to be in a position to teach this father’s child. Oh how to completely miss the message of Christ’s sermon on the mount!) Perhaps they would have accused Christ himself of unworthiness as well. For me it was both disheartening and nauseating to witness the event. I was asked to not say anything at that meeting I really wanted to say, so I didn’t. Looking back I wish I had. But I know God is sovereign, and I know that God sees all. If God wills, they will see the error of their ways. But I don’t want to put myself up on some righteous pedestal, and I am getting too close to the line of judging the hearts of others, for I cannot truly see their hearts and I am certainly not righteous or free from sin in this matter.

Eventually the overall context shifted such that the teacher stayed (because of overwhelming support from others and from the organization he works for) and the wolves began to ruthlessly attack those who God had placed in authority over them and who supported this teacher, starting a campaign to smear the character of those in their target sights, telling both veiled and outright lies, and using Christian language to elevate themselves as righteous victims. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but this was one of the ugliest examples of Pharisee-ism I’v ever personally witnessed. And so they left to form their own “Christ centered” and “pure doctrine” (their words) educational endeavor which, in my opinion, they falsely and, from what I can tell, self-righteously claim is more Biblical, thus sowing division among believers in the name of Christ. Is this not taking Christ’s name in vain? I grieve at how quickly many Christians are willing to separate themselves from other Christians, and even claim the act of pulling away as some kind of badge of holiness. They made no attempt to seek reconciliation, to find a middle way, to let love rule over their pride. But isn’t this just par for the course, especially in our division-loving Protestant world? I mean no attack on Protestantism per se – though it is important to recognize certain prevalent tendencies when they are there. Perhaps many churches and “Christian” schools should have “Thank you Lord that we are not like other churches/schools” as their mottoes.

Of course I could be wrong in my judgement. I have been before. I admit I am biased and not a little emotional about it.

As hard as that was and is to go through, most troubling perhaps is watching the number of families follow the wolves to their new “Christ centered” educational endeavor, not knowing the backroom stories, not discerning (if they know any of the story) the difference between wolf and lamb, and not seeing that the beatitudes are the first touchstones of the Christian tutor. I am also disheartened especially by how easy it seems for the fathers of these families to so quickly abdicate their role as spiritual leaders by accepting hearsay without demonstrating any desire to know the truth—truth that is readily available if any would ask. (Only one father of the lot, because he suspected there was more going on, partially reached out to find out some of the truth for himself.) Perhaps it’s just too easy to “lead” without really leading. It seems much of popular Christianity is play-acting “Christian” spirituality without any true spiritual discernment (which is more the result of very hard work and lots of prayer rather than cheap intuition). I challenge fathers, as I challenge myself, to step up—not with a kind of American Christian macho cartoon version of being a Christian man, but a true Christ-like, beatitude loving, truth demanding, love rules kind of Christian man. Of course, it’s all too easy to slap on a Christian façade without really being different than everyone else. We all do it. But remember wolves often appear as the best Christians, thus garnering many unquestioning followers. Woe to us if we are not wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Please keep in mind that I am not seeing myself as above it all. I am deeply sinful and have said things and thought worse things in my own way. I am the opposite of a saint. And perhaps I am only taking the side of the lambs because this time I feel as though I am one of the victims. I’m sure when I am a wolf I don’t see it.

In many ways this story has been like a classic Protestant church split. What I see too often is an easy acquiescence to the idea of Christians splitting. It is so much a part of Protestant culture and history that many see it as normative. More than that, many Protestants, like the one’s above splitting to form their “pure doctrine” school, often see separating themselves from other Christians over perceptions of doctrine or practice as a badge of their right standing before God (I suppose this is a broadly Christian thing as well). I come from that background. I was trained as a good Protestant. I know that mindset, and I have come to believe this easy spirit of disunity is the spirit of Antichrist. It arises from the leaven of the Pharisees.

Then again, and with fear and trembling, I wonder how often I have been a wolf who thinks he’s a lamb. I wonder how often I have believed I have the truth, but really do not. I wonder how often I deceive myself, even now as I write this, about my own faith. And I wonder how often I have said faith is more important than love.

I’m sure some would say there is no little amount of hypocrisy in this post of mine. God have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper
you prayed to the Father that all should be one.
Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name
and seek to serve you.
Strengthen our faith in you,
and lead us to love one another in humility.
May we who have been reborn in one baptism
be united in one faith under one Shepherd.
Amen.

Do we use creeds to protect us from others, from the world? Or do our creeds give us the freedom to risk love, even to risk God? Do we grab tightly to faith statements out of a need to control the world around us rather than truly taking up our crosses and following our Lord where ever he goes, even to a total trust in the Father?

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Throughout the history of Christianity, how one views the Bible has been a key indicator of one’s stance towards Christian orthodoxy. For example, whether one takes the Bible as being inspired by God or not means a great deal to most Christians and has been one of the primary lines drawn in the sand over the centuries. Given the contentious history of debates over scripture (and over the divinity of Christ, the sacraments, etc.)  the existence of the great creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, etc.) come as no surprise. It is also not surprising that many individual churches (esp. Protestant)  and various Christian organizations (such as schools) adopt “statements of faith” or minor creeds that highlight where they stand on key issues. [As an aside it is worth noting that for many Protestant churches, especially non-denominational, evangelical, and various Baptists, these minor creeds or statements of faith are the only creeds used, since there is a tendency within these groups to avoid the traditional creeds of the historical church for various reasons of which their members are largely unaware.]

Here is the first paragraph of a Statement of Faith (SOF) used by a Christian educational organization of which our family is a part:

All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life. The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.

Notice the key words employed: self-attesting, Truth, submission in all areas of life, infallible, Word of God, complete and unified, uniquely and fully inspired, supreme and final authority. Also notice that sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are called out, and that scripture applies to “all matters on which it speaks.” Without going into depth here, it is clear that this SOF’s provenance is of the Reformed/Protestant worldview (only 66 books instead of 73, Scripture is the “supreme and final authority” instead of the Church, etc). And it should be noted that even within traditional, conservative, Protestant Christianity, there is not a little debate over each of the words and phrases above, especially regarding “all matters on which it speaks” — which itself is a highly debated phrase. Notice one other thing: the omission of the idea of “literal interpretation.” I do not believe this omission is an oversight.

The idea of taking the Bible literally has its own history and debates, and sharp lines have been drawn. In particular, those of the more Fundamentalist persuasion (such as many Baptists and many American Evangelicals) have tended toward a literalist interpretation in their battles against the theory of evolution. The history here is key, and demonstrates that the argument, at least for the Fundamentalists, has been largely defined by the evolutionists. The literalist stance is an historically recent phenomenon, and is essentially a reactionary position. The literalist is more likely to interpret the first chapter of Genesis as clearly speaking of a literal six-day creation story, and must therefore logically hold to a staunchly anti-evolution (and battle-hardened) position  On the other hand, a non-literalist, who may also be just as against Darwin’s theory of evolution as the Fundamentalist, will be more open to the idea that the six days of creation could, for example, be a poetic description of six ages rather than days (both views presupposing God as sovereign creator). And we should keep in mind that an anti-evolution argument based on a literal interpretation of Genesis is very different than an anti-evolution position based on scientific principles and logical arguments. Keep in mind as well that many orthodox Christians see evolution as a potentially valid explanation of one way God actively works in His creation. But that’s another topic for another day.

Bible believing Christians continue to debate these issues, with some Christians believing there is room for interpretation and some who do not. Those who do not also tend to draw lines in terms of authentic belief along the literalist divide. In other words, and for various reasons, the literalists will tend to equate authentic Christian belief with their literalist perspective—all non-literalists are questionably Christian at best. It doesn’t take much to show that this equation lacks both from the reasonableness of good logic and from an understanding of how the biblical authors themselves understood Holy Scriptures. But convictions run deep in times of war, and Fundamentalists are, for better or worse, at war.

From the SOF above we can conclude three things: a) it is unambiguously of the Reformed/Protestant worldview, b) it is, however, not of the more narrow Fundamentalist worldview, at least in terms of demanding a literalist interpretation of scripture, and c) while making clear demands in terms of infallibility and inspiration, it does not demand strict interpretive rules (whether in terms of literalism or other approaches), and thus does not preclude some variance among adherents to the SOF in understanding Genesis 1 (or other passages of scripture). Thus, while clearly stating there are certain key points on which the organization will not budge, there are other points on which it allows for some flexibility in light of the SOF as a whole.

Why bring up this SOF? We have recently had the privilege to clarify our own beliefs within a Christian community because of some accusations of unbelief leveled at one of its members who is in a leadership position, leveled in light of the SOF above. (It’s not the only issue on the table, but it’s one of the biggest.)  One of the points of tension specifically pitted the literalist perspective of the accusers against the non-literalist perspective of the accused.  Though this is an old debate, it caught the accused off guard and reminded me that the literalist perspective is alive and well. (Keep in mind the accusations were leveled in a relatively loving style, though if it was actually loving is questionable.)

Typically those in leadership and/or positions of responsibility within a Christian organization are asked to faithfully adhere to that organization’s statement of faith. This is a generally accepted practice. And certainly, if one  in such a position has sworn an oath or signed a contract to adhere to a statement of faith, then one should keep one’s word or probably abdicate one’s position. It is important to know what one has sworn to uphold, but also what one has not sworn to uphold. Consequently, some such organizations take the crafting of their statements of faith very seriously by being careful in the words used and, just as important, the words not used. And yet, most Christian websites I’ve perused seem to put up statements of faith by merely copying them from other Christian organizations’ web sites, such as the SOF above (at least the portion shown). Regardless, for those who are unfamiliar or unaware of the historical battles fought over creedal language, it may come as a surprise when issues flair up and heated debates begin to rage. For this reason some Christians are anti-creedal, but this is throwing out the baby with the bath water for reasons I can’t go into here.

It may also come as a surprise when an individual within an organization, who is understood as being a true brother or sister in Christ is, nonetheless, asked to leave the organization over a particular point in a statement of faith. Sometimes the breach is significant and warrants serious evaluation. Many times, however, the issue revolves around expectations particular only to a specific group or individual, or specific interpretations of vague or even missing language, and even in terms of matters of style. We forget how much of our judging of other Christians comes from whether they look and talk like us. And, as happens in these situations, the literalist position assumes a whole host of necessary implications stemming from the non-literalist stance — such as the non-literalist MUST be a relativist at heart, shaky in his/her faith, on the verge of denying both the inspiration and infallibility of scripture, and willing to make the Bible say whatever is convenient. Only conformance to the narrow creed or expulsion from the group are the options offered — and not offered out of anger, but out of a perceived fidelity to faith.

Perhaps it is more serious when contentions arise from an overreaching of the SOF by imposing expectations not specified or clearly stated in the SOF. In other words, if individuals within an organization demand either a particular interpretation of an SOF (when there is, in fact, legitimate room for a breadth of application), or claim the SOF implies language (such as a literal interpretation of scripture) not actually stated in the SOF, then it becomes too easy for some to make perhaps unintended, and yet unscrupulous, choices or, perhaps worse, wield a kind of destructive power within an organization for their own purposes, however noble they may be perceived. It may be interesting to consider who, in these kinds of Christian power-play politics, is the weaker brother—though that kind of thinking inevitably goes both ways and should call all to repentance and humility.

Sometimes the accusations merely come from a misunderstanding of the role the SOF is meant to play within an organization. It is too common within Christian organizations that SOF’s are seen (or assumed) as designating the faith of the adherents—though this is a highly questionable, and probably un-biblical position for faith is much more of a mystery. Even those with faith often don’t truly know they have faith until trials and suffering reveals it to them. Nonetheless, we tend to like shortcuts to making judgements than doing the hard work of relationships. Also, and this is a critical distinction, in many educational organizations, including the one in which we participate, the SOF is technically an academic requirement, not a measure of faith. In other words, tutors declare with their signatures that they will teach in accordance with, and in light of, the SOF—but they are not required to believe everything in it personally. If they deviate or transgress their obligation of adherence, which can happen for any number of rather innocuous reasons, then very often a course correction is warranted rather expulsion from their role within the organization. This means that, for example, an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian tutor could fulfill the requirements of the SOF above by adhering to the academic requirements in a faithful manner, though the SOF is essentially Protestant. Whether such a person would want to do this, or would actually be free to do this, is another matter. This in not to dismiss the importance of creeds actually representing, in some important way, the faith held by the adherents, for this is no small thing. But those calling for expulsion over creeds all too often have convoluted the academic (or other organizational) requirement with personal faith, and thus jump to equating the external with the internal, and blown up minor points of interpretation into outsized issues.

Sadly, what happens, and in this case has happened, is to accuse others of unbelief. Or, more specifically, to say the individual is an unbeliever, which often means (and in this case is meant to mean), to say this individual is damned. That’s a strong word, and it often is avoided with language like “I don’t doubt we are all believers here” or “I know you love God” and then inevitably followed with the big “but, you see…” That language is, ironically, only meant to fool the one’s using it. The problem here is that none of us can know if another is “saved”. That is up to God alone. But it is a big temptation to put oneself in the place of God, to level the finger at others and declare “I see through you.” Creeds can become a handy weapon in the hands of unscrupulous Christians. The irony in this particular situation, and I imagine in many others similar ones, is that the accused, by his responses and demeanor, has exhibited more Christ-like behavior than some of the accusers. The problem may merely be that his demeanor is very a-typical for middle-class, Protestant, Fundamentalist society, and therefore is a natural target. But it is a common occurrence for any of us to have both Christ-like behavior and a creed displayed before us, and to choose the creed over Christ.

An important question all of us must ask, especially those of us in positions of influence withing Christian organizations, is whether our intentions and actions truly correspond with those of Christ. If we are honest, we must conclude they often do not. In fact, more frequently than we want to admit, or are even capable of seeing, we tend more towards the attitude of the Pharisees than of Christ. We tend to live in fear while calling it prudence or even wisdom. Fear is corrosive. This is true especially when it comes to how we educate our children, and thus plays a big role in many Christian schools (including the pressure put on schools by fearful parents). And finding the balance in love is extremely difficult. We want to guard our children’s hearts, but education also requires risk—and I don’t mean it sometimes can gets risky, like straying inadvertently into a minefield, but that education requires risk from the beginning.

Given this fact, it is not inconceivable to think that Christian Fundamentalism (and much of American Evangelicalism) is probably incompatible with the Classical Christian Education model. This is a separate issue, but it resides at the heart of much of what our family is about.

A question each of us might ask is whether we have entrenched ourselves within a creed because it is easier to do that than to risk trusting in God. One of the great ironies of the history of creeds is that they were typically, traditionally created for the purpose of finding as much room for inclusion within the Body of Christ as possible, but then tended to be wielded for the purpose of exclusion. In other words, an activity whose origin is for unity is eventually employed for division. This is the result of that common occurrence whereby we Christians (yes, all of us are affected at one time or another) tend to slide from freedom in Christ to pharisaism.  This slide, which is fundamentally the result of fear, unfortunately represents much of the history of the Church and has torn too many Christians, and Christian organizations, apart. As the old saying goes, those who do not study history are destined to repeat it.

I want to explore a common misunderstanding.

Question: Is it true that the author of the letter to the Hebrews proclaims the Bible to be “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”? I grew up believing that it is, and I hear today from some Christians, mostly Protestants, that it is. But is that what this verse means?

No. That is a misinterpretation of that passage.

If we read Hebrews 4:12 in its context (see all of chapter 4 below) it becomes apparent that the issue at hand is whether the readers of this letter will enter into the “sabbath rest” because they have heard the word of God and obeyed it, or whether they will fail to enter that rest because, after hearing that word, they reject it and fall into disobedience. The author of Hebrews draws the connection up front: “For good news came to us just as to them”. And the problem of those who failed to enter God’s rest is because the good news “did not meet with faith in the hearers”. The author makes the comparison with those of the past ages by bringing up the creation story, Joshua, and David. When he says, “and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,” he wants his readers to understand the history of this good news, that it has been there from the beginning, is here today, and that all are called to respond. He wants his readers to respond positively and enter into God’s rest. He even says, “let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.”

So why is this “word of God” not the Bible? First, we should remember that the phrase “word of God” is often used in Scriptures to mean Christ; see John’s Gospel chapter 1: “In the Beginning was the Word…” and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The phrase is more often used to mean the Gospel, or message of salvation: “And the word of God increased…” (Acts 6:7), “But it is not as though the word of God had failed.” (Romans 9:6), “…are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:14), “But the word of God is not fettered.” (2 Timothy 2:9), and many more. None of these passages diminish the Holy Scriptures, but it is clear that in the minds of the Apostles the phrase “word of God” has everything to do with what has been proclaimed by God since the beginning and what was being proclaimed to the world by the apostles, namely Christ.

If this is true, then we should ask what does it mean that this word of God “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Think of how many times in the New Testament, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles, that upon hearing the Gospel people respond (remarkably, miraculously) with belief: the Gospel is proclaimed and, along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the hearers are cut to the quick, convicted of their sins, repent, and seek reconciliation with God. That is the power of this Gospel. The author of Hebrews says, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” To be open to that “word” is to be on the path to God’s rest. The other option is to harden one’s heart and turn away in disobedience.

Does the Bible proclaim the Word of God? Absolutely! Are the Holy Scriptures one the “tools” God uses to convict sinners of their need for repentance, as well as of the incredible mercy of God? Yes! The Bible is our primary source for the teachings of the prophets of God, of the Apostles, and of Christ Himself. But, according to the author of Hebrews, the word of God is “living”, that is, it is the continuing proclamation of the Gospel through the ages, actively promoted by the Holy Spirit through the words and witness of the followers of Christ. The “word of God” is the good news, the promise of salvation, the Gospel. And that good news is is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.

Hebrews 4

¹ Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall never enter my rest,’”

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this place he said,

“They shall never enter my rest.”

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, when you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. 9 So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; 10 for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Final thoughts:

Growing up a Protestant I know the lingo and presuppositions that pervade that sub-world, and lifting up the scriptures above all else is a big one. Now, Christians have always had a high view of the Holy Scriptures, and this is as it should be. For “God is the author of Sacred Scripture. ‘The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'” (CCC 105) Protestants often claim to have a higher view of the Holy Scriptures than non-Protestants. Sola Scriptura is the classic rallying cry of Protestantism. Hebrews 4:12 is one of the popular texts frequently used to argue for this unique place of scripture as against tradition. Perhaps other arguments can be offered for this perspective, but Hebrews 4:12 offers none.

Why bring this up? Recently I have had the privilege of being in the midst of a debate on how to teach the theory of evolution within a Christian Classical Education context. Central to the debate is how we are to interpret scripture. All involved proclaim the importance of the Bible and see it as the inspired word of God. Not all agree, however, as to the specific nuances of what that means. I am inclined to see Holy inspiration as being more mysterious and unknowable than some. But the real crux came not about whether the Bible is the word of God, but rather what method of interpretation should one employ. In other words, some assumed that a literal interpretation — especially in regards to the first chapter of Genesis — was required in order to also assume inspiration and infallibility (an assumption that doesn’t make sense to me), and were surprised to realize that not everyone, including the tutor, held their perspective. In fact, the subtext, which remained barely below the surface (and not really below the surface at all) called into question the “authentic belief” of those who were not literalists. At one point Hebrews 4:12 was tossed on the table with almost the wave of a hand in order to champion the high place of Holy Scripture. The irony was that the true meaning of Hebrew 4:12 — that is, the deep and profound embracing of the Word of God through the conviction of the Holy Spirit resulting in a heart that loves truth and loves God — was evidenced by the non-literalist tutor in the responses given to serious accusations.

Perhaps the tendency to see the Bible as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” is because some like the idea of the Bible being a weapon against the world, of cutting others to the heart, of fighting the good fight. But to see this living, two-edged sword instead as the Word of God, as that which convicts and lays bare, as that which calls each of us to repentance, is to weep and call upon God for mercy. One perspective attacks, the other welcomes; one pushes away, the other embraces; one emerges out of fear, the other out of love.

My desire is that I would be someone who embraces the word of God. As a parent I am faced continually with the question: How do I model this for my children, how do I live it before them?

Finally, let us remember with humility, as the passage in Hebrews above begins, that “while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.” The clear implication is that some of us will start of this journey to God’s rest and then fail to enter it. Perhaps that is because we hear the Gospel, embrace it at one level, but fail to love others as Christ loved us. God have mercy.

ss-120416-pope-benedict-birthday-tease2.photoblog900
A young priest takes up a vocation. His future is in God’s hands.
His life not yet the full testament of his desires and faith.
pope-benedict-resigns4-10022013-jpg_123515
A man of God. A man who has served Christ.

What is it that makes a man?

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent renunciation of the Petrine office, effective 28 February 2013, is a fascinating moment in world history.† Plainly, it’s big news. But it also is a moment to consider this man who, called up to the priesthood as a young man, became one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, and then was chosen by the Church he loved and served for so long to be the Bishop of Rome. Now he is leaving this office, presumably going into quiet seclusion and taking up a life of prayer until the end of his days.

I have never studied the life of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Someday I may read one of his biographies. (I just started a biography of John Paul II.) What I know of his life is very limited. But I have read in numerous places that he is kind, thoughtful, brilliant, pastoral, and humble. I own several of his books and love them. I love the way he writes, the way his mind works (as far as I can tell), and his theological insights. I love his commitment to the truth and to Christ and to the Church. I know that he has weaknesses, flaws, and limitations, for we all do. He is human. I know that he is a sinner who is striving for holiness, striving to finish the race as St. Paul encouraged us all to do. But I also see a man who is a kind of model of virtue. Though his path and mine are wildly different, we are both called to the same goal, the same ultimate glory. We are both called to imitate Christ.‡

What I see in Benedict XVI is a soul devoted to our Lord. I also see a man with great gifts who has glorified God with those gifts. In that way he is an example for me. I also have gifts given to me by God. So do you. We should all seek to glorify God with out gifts. I know I fail miserably at this. But Benedict, and John Paul II, and the saints, and I pray the next pope, will continue to inspire us all to holiness and true glory.

As I raise up my children, teaching them in light of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, I look for role models. I seek out examples of men and women who can inspire us to be authentic followers of Christ. No man or woman is perfect, except Christ, but some rise above, as it were, and their lives are worth contemplating. I think Benedict XVI is one of those role models, as is John Paul II, as are numerous saints and great Christians throughout history. Slowly I am coming to realize the value of presenting heroes as archetypes of holiness to my children and to myself for the sake of our souls. That, I am beginning to see more and more, is at the heart of a Christian education.

God bless Pope Benedict XVI.



† I only just realized that the word “history” really means Christ’s story: “His story.” I used to think “history” was at minimum a borderline patriarchal and misogynist term that meant “man’s story,” excluding women from some implied supreme status of men. Not surprisingly I picked up this notion in college. Now I believe that if Christ is the very center-point of the story God is telling, the key figure, the main reason, the hero, then certainly the flow of time and events must be His story: history.

‡ I am aware of the many charges against Benedict XVI one finds in our popular media culture. I have yet to see any news story on the current pope without some reference to the sins (real and perceived) of the Church. Comments on blogs having to do with B16 and/or the Catholic Church almost always begin with harsh words referencing the sex abuse crisis, and then move on to references to the Nazis. Comments made on the pope’s twitter feed are mostly a torrent of slurs and bigotry. The Catholic Church is deeply hated in this world, and probably it deserves some of what it gets (the sex abuse crisis is very real and evil, but perhaps wildly overblown by the media as well for various reasons). Regardless, I am convinced that B16 does not deserve the garbage thrown at him. In fact, I think just the opposite.

However, I am also convinced that a small fraction of priests (less than one tenth of one percent of the total number of priests)  committing horrible sins, and then those sins being systematically covered up, creates such an outpouring of anger (justifiably so) because the Catholic Church represents the fullness of the Body of Christ (or should) more so than any other group. In a sense, even coming from those who do not believe they need to be saved, one could say that if we cannot trust the Catholic Church then we truly are without hope. This is debatable of course, but it may get at some of the underlying pain of the issue. It may even get at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, which was a rebellion fueled largely by frustration and anger. Sin should never be tolerated in the Body of Christ. But then we all need to look at ourselves, our dark and sinful hearts, and wonder how anyone can be a Christian at all. For whatever reason it’s the way God “writes” history and our lives—good and evil in constant struggle, learning through failure (sometimes big failure), the constant need for repentance, the constant need of reform.  But we know we must continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (see Phil 2:12b-13) Only by the grace of God do we have any hope.

[This is a reworking of an earlier post, which was then published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

I sometimes cringe when I hear Jesus called a great teacher. All too often those words are used to label Jesus as “merely” a great teacher, and he is so much more. But he was a great teacher. And like Jesus, the best teachers lead by example. Think about the best teachers you have had. You might remember the subjects they taught, but you probably remember more the way they taught, their mastery, their skill, and most importantly, their character. Maybe some were a bit disorganized, some a bit quirky, but they loved seeking the truth, were passionate in helping you to grow in knowledge, and they had humility. They were people who you wanted to imitate. I am convinced that to become a great teacher one must believe and embody the twin ideas that teaching with love is greater than teaching with mastery, but teaching with true mastery is, inherently, to teach with love. Let’s look at how Jesus taught.

Consider the following scene. Jesus and the disciples are in the upper room for the passover. Jesus knows he is going to his crucifixion and that his disciples are clueless, but he loves them dearly. In the Gospel of John 13:3-17 (NIV1984) we read:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

This famous passage is full of profound ideas to ponder, but I want to zero in on something specific: the way Jesus taught the lesson. Notice the key idea Jesus wants them to understand: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” One could say this is the logos of the lesson. It is simple, straightforward, and profound, and from the context of the upper room discourse this is a message Jesus really wants them to get. But now look how he got to that idea. Jesus lays aside his outer garments and begins washing their feet. This is not only outside the expected behavior of a teacher, but it also produces a striking image for them. And not only that, it produces a tension that must somehow be reconciled in their minds. Peter’s response most likely is just the verbal expression of what they were all thinking. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus creates a dilemma his disciples need resolved. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” That is exactly what they are wondering. This tension creates the proper context for his message: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” He then lets them in on his teaching process: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” But Jesus also knows they still will not truly understand until later: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Think how powerful that image of Jesus washing their feet must have been in their minds, especially when later they began to link it with the crucifixion. When the Holy Spirit opened their eyes and helped them to remember all that Jesus said and did, this scene must have stuck out. Whenever they thought of their Lord they would remember that he was the one who washed their feet, who then told them to do the same for each other, and to know that this upending of the normal order of things is at the core of the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” That is a powerful lesson.

How then did Jesus teach them? He showed rather than only told. In other words, he taught them mimetically. There are five basic parts to a great mimetic lesson and Jesus used all five.

We observe that Jesus:

  1. connected his lesson to prior knowledge. That is, when he took off his outer garments and began washing their feet he relied on their cultural understanding of servants and masters. They saw what he was doing even if they thought it strikingly odd. And they felt the tension, so they needed a resolution.
  2. gave them an example or type. That is, he created an image of a master serving his servants. Imagine the scene, they had to sit there and watch him wash their feet. Individually they each had to physically experience their feet being washed by their teacher. This must have been a profoundly visceral example.
  3. compared this type to other types. That is, he called attention to how this new type contrasted with what they knew to be the normal order of things. They could feel the tension, but he made sure they got it by connecting his example to what they thought they knew was right. The comparison must have been startling. By calling it out, Jesus made sure they understood that seeing the distinction was critical.
  4. expressed the idea. That is, he told them directly and simply the point of the lesson. He gave them words they could not forget: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
  5. applied the idea. That is, he told them to do as he had done, to be servants of each other. Later he would give them the greatest image of application they could ever hope or fear: his death on the cross.

Imagine Peter, years later, facing into his own crucifixion for the sake of the gospel. Imagine him looking back on his experiences as an apostle, all that he had gone through up to that point, all that he had preached and all that he had suffered, and then he remembers that evening sitting in a warm upper room when his beloved lord stripped himself of his outer garments and washed the disciples’ feet; how his master and teacher got down on his hands and knees and became their lowly servant. Peter must have remembered how Jesus looked, the color of his eyes, his voice, his expression, and his simple and elegant message. And he must have remembered his own confusion, his emotional response, and then his wonder at what it meant. Facing death, just as in life, Peter would have confronted the question, “What type of man will I be?” Fortunately in his mind and soul Peter would always have the indelible image of Jesus the master as servant; an image given as a gift━a gift he was able to receive, in part, because Jesus had connected that critical lesson to prior knowledge, then gave Peter an example or type, then compared that type to other types, then expressed the idea clearly once Peter was ready, and finally told him to apply the idea in his life.

Jesus was a great teacher. He taught with love and he taught with mastery. And he demonstrated both his love and his mastery by laying down his life for the sake of the world. That we would all become that kind of teacher. I am convinced some of us already embody a great deal of that type. My wife does so more than I. Regardless, all of us can do no better than to imitate Christ.

The following post I originally published in 2007 on another blog. I think it is worth posting again.

I entered the University or Oregon’s film studies department (Dept. of Telecommunication and Film) in 1984. During that period I took classes from Prof. William Cadbury who, in my opinion, was a GREAT teacher and one of my favorite professors of all time. In one of his classes he handed out a booklist that I have kept with me all these years. I have re-typed it below (any misspellings are my own). There was also a classical music list, but I have not included it.

The list was created by Prof. Cadbury and his wife, the poet Maxine Scates, for her niece Tracy (hence Tracy’s Booklist), who was entering UCLA as a freshman. The list first appeared in 1980 and was then updated. This is the 2nd edition. I suppose you could say this is a book list for anyone who want’s to combine being well read and culturally intelligent. It’s not a “classical” reading list, but has a healthy dose of modern and relatively modern books.

The premise of the list is as follows:

“People are rarely told an opinion of the actual bibliography of fictions (mostly novels, a few stories), of which a cultured person in modern America is master. The following is an opinion of that bibliography. It suggests: don’t waste your time reading lesser books when you read; always have at least one book that you’re in the middle of, and usually have it be one of these. The list is divided into translations and English language originals; it is presented in full awareness of the presumption in doing so, and in the hope that the utility will override the presumption.” [from Prof. Cadbury’s introduction]

Naturally, this is a very personal list. The non-fiction section is also skewed towards the arts, which is okay by me (a critical topic for our contemporary, visually-based culture). And for myself this list represents the considered opinion of an older and wiser person who, after engaging for many years both intellectually and emotionally with college students, felt the neccessity to impart some idea of what it means to be a cultured person—not in totality, but at least a slice of that ideal.

Tracy’s Booklist: 2nd Edition

BOOKS ORIGINALLY NOT IN ENGLISH

Balzac, Honoré de: Eugénie Grandet; Old Goriot; Lost Illusions
Borges, Jorge Luis: Labyrinths
Borowski, Tadeusz: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Camus, Albert: The Stranger; The Plague
Cervantes, Miguel: Don Quixote
Chekhov, Anton: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories
Colette: My Mother’s House; Sido
Condé, Maryse: Segu
Cortazar, Julio: Blow-Up
Döblin, Alfred: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Dostoyevsky, F.: The Brothers Karamozov; Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; Notes from Underground
Eco, Umberto: The Name of the Rose
Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
Garcia Marquez, G.: 100 Years of Solitude
Kafka, Franz: The Trial; The Castle; “Metamorphosis”; “In the Penal Colony”
Levi, Primo: If Not Now, When?; The Periodic Table
Lustig, Arnost: Night and Hope; The Unloved
Mahfouz, Naguib: The Thief and the Dogs; Miramar
Malraux, André: Man’s Fate
Mann, Thomas: Death in Venice; The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
Murasaki, Lady: The Tale of Genji
Nabakov, Vladimir: Pale Fire
Narayan, R. K.: The Financial Expert; The Man-Eater of Malgudi
Pavese, Cesare: The Moon and the Bonfire
Proust, Marcel: Remembrance of Things Past
Rulfo, Juan: Pedro Paramo
Schwartz-Bart, André: The Last of the Just
Sembene, Ousmane: God’s Bits of Wood
Stendhal: The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace; Anna Karenina

ENGLISH LANGUAGE:

Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim
Arnow, Harriet: The Dollmaker
Austen, Jane: Mansfield Park; Emma; Pride and Prejudice; Persuasion
Baldwin, James: Go Tell It On the Mountain; Another Country; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone
Brontë, Charlotte: Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights
Brooks, Gwendolyn: Maud Martha
Carroll, Lewis: Alice in Wonderland
Cather, Willa: My Anatonia; A Lost Lady
Chandler, Raymond: The Big Sleep; The Long Goodbye
Cherryh, C. J.: “The Chanyr Saga”; the “Cyteen” books
Chopin, Kate: “The Storm” and other stories
Cisneros, Sandra: The House on Mango Street
Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim; Heart of Darkness; Nostromo
Daley, Grace: Enormous Changes at the Last Moment
Darganyemba, Tsiti: Nervous Conditions
Dickens, Charles: Bleak House; Great Expectations; Hard Times
Eliot, George: Middlemarch
Ellison, Ralph: The Invisible Man
Emecheta, Buchi: In the Ditch
Erdrich, Louise: Love Medicine
Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury; Absalom, Absalom
Fielding, Joseph: Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
Ford, Ford Madox: Parade’s End
Forster, E. M.: A Passage to India; Howards End
Fowles, John: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Glasgow, Ellen: Barren Earth
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gordimer, Nadin: Burgher’s Daughter; Occasion for Loving; July’s People
Green, Graham: The Heart of the Matter; Brighton Rock
Hagedorn, Jessica: Dogeaters
Hammett, Dashiel: The Thin Man
Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the D’Urbervilles; Jude the Obscure
Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Scarlet Letter
Head, Bessie: When Rain Clouds Gather
Heller, Joseph: Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest: The Sun Also Rises
Hogan, Linda: Mean Spirit
Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God
James, Henry: The Ambassadors; The Golden Bowl
Jen, Gish: Typical American
Jones, Gayl: Corregidora
Joyce, James: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses; Dubliners
Karbo, Karen: The Diamond Lane
Karmel, Ilona: An Estate of Memory
Kincaid, Jamaica: Annie John
Kingston, Maxine Hong: China Men
Kogawa, Joy: Obasan
Lawrence, D. H.: Sons and Lovers; Women in Love
Lessing, Doris: The Marriage Between Zone 3, 4, and 5; The Golden Notebook; Shikasta
Lesueur, Meridel: Ripening
Loge, David: Small World
Mansfield, Katharine: Collected Stories
Marshall, Paule: Brown Girl, Brown Stones; Praise Song for the Widow
McCuller, Carson: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Melville, Herman: Moby Dick
Meredith, George: The Egoist
Milne, A. A.: Winnie-the-Pooh; The House at Pooh Corner
Momada, N. Scott: House Made of Dawn
Morrison, Toni: Beloved; Sula
O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried
O’Connor, Flannery: Wise Blood; The Violent Bear It Away
Olson, Tillie: Tell Me A Riddle
Orwell, George: 1984
Paton, Alan: Cry the Beloved Country
Petry, Ann: The Street
Porter, Katharine Anne: Collected Stories; Ship of Fools
Pratchett, Terry: Moving Pictures
Pynchon, Thomas: Gravity’s Rainbow; V
Rhys, Jean: After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie
Roth, Phillip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Saki (H. H. Munro): The Short Stories of Saki
Salinger, J. D.: The Catcher in the Rye; Nine Stories
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon: Disturbances in the Field; Leaving Brooklyn
Scott, Sir Walter: Rob Roy; The Heart of Midlothian
Silko, Leslie Marmon: Ceremony
Singer, Isaac Bashevis: The Family Moskat; The Magic of Lublin
Stein, Gertrude: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; The Lives
Swift, Jonathan: Gullivers Travels
Tan, Amy: Joy Luck Club
Thackeray, William M.: Vanity Fair
Thomas, D. M.: The White Hotel
Tolkien, J. R. R.: Lord of the Rings
Toomer, Jean: Cane
Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers; Phineas Finn
Tutuola, Amos: The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Twain, Mark: Huckleberry Finn
Updike, John: Rabbit Run
Wachtel, Chuck: Joe the Engineer
Walker, Alice: The Color Purple; Meridian; The Short Life of Grange Copeland
Waugh, Evelyn: Vile Bodies; Brideshead Revisited
Welty, Eudora: Collected Stories
West, Nathaneal: The Day of the Locust; Miss Lonelyhearts
White, T. H.: The Sword in the Stone
Wodehouse, P. G.: Blandings Castle
Wolfe, Thomas: Look Homeward Angel
Woolf, Virginia: Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; The Waves; Orlando
Wright, Richard: Native Son
Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth; The Age of Innocence

NON-FICTION:

Baritz, Loren: Backfire
Baxandall, Michael: Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy
Beardsley, Monroe: Aesthetics
Berger, John: The Success and Failure of Picasso
Bernstein, Leonard: The Unanswered Question
Campbell, Joseph: The Mythic Image
Chomsky, Noam: Language and Mind; Turning the Tide
Des Pres, Terrence: The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps; Writing Into the World
Eriksen, Erik H.: Childhood and Society
Freire, Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism
Gombrich, E. H.: Art and Illusion
Hacker, Andrew: Two Nations: Black and White, Separate and Unequal
Harding, Vincent: There is a River
Hauser, Arnold: The Social History of Art
Herbert,, Robert L.: Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society
Hollander, Anne: Seeing Through Clothes
Hyde, Lewis: The Gift
Jencks, Charles: Postmodernism
Johnson, Paul: The Birth of the Modern
Kegan, John: The Face of Battle; The Price of Admiralty
Kozol, Jonathan: Illiterate America; Savage Inequalities; Rachel and Her Children
Levi, Primo: Survival at Auschwitz
Monod, Jacques: Chance and Necessity
Neisser, Ulrich: Cognition and Reality
Robert, J. M.: The Pelican History of the World
Schama, Simon: Citizens
Schell, Jonathan: The Fate of the Earth
Sheehan, Neal: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
Spiegelman, Art: Maus; Maus II
Weismann, Donald L.: The Visual Arts as Human Experience
Williams, Juan: Eyes on the Prize
Zinn, Howard: People’s History of the United States

I’ve been thinking of adding to this list myself. There are at least a few books I would consider. Suggestions are welcome.

[This article first appeared on the Classical Conversations blog.]

If there is a question that just begs for both a “yes” and a “no” answer it is this question: Will a classical education get your child a job?”

We homeschooling parents worry about the future of our children. We want them to be successful and get married and make a difference. We imagine them with flourishing lives buoyed by a Christ-centered, classically formed educational foundation. And then we stare into the high school years and think maybe now is a good time to switch back to something more predictable, more familiar, more status quo. We want to make sure they get into a good college so they get a good job. Right? Regardless of the increasingly exorbitant cost of college and the increasingly dubious value of a college degree we still see that treadmill as the ticket to the golden fleece. But college or no college, what value does a classical education offer for the young man or woman looking for employment?

We have all heard that a classical education will help our children think better. We know that thinking well is a good thing. But truth be told, we may not fully trust that sentiment enough. Perhaps it is because we are Americans, and therefore place a high value on doing over thinking, and perhaps because we tend to believe thinking is cheap. Compared to the so-called practicality of our society’s belief in a causal relationship between education and job-getting, the seven liberal arts seem fanciful. Describing the first three (or trivium) of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, leave most people nonplussed. The last four (or quadrivium) of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy seem a bit more practical, at least two of them do━arithmetic and geometry. But is that all? Isn’t that rather narrow? We look at that list and don’t see computer science, economics, architecture, marketing, chemistry, biology, English lit, international relations, or even basket weaving. So we get nervous.

But let’s be honest in what questions we are asking, and honest in our answers. If we are truly asking whether a classical education will get our children jobs, then the answer is no. So let’s ask another question: Will a non-classical education get our children jobs? Again, the answer is no. No education automatically guarantees anyone a job. Getting a job is a much more complex process based on what one knows, what skills one can demonstrate, how readily one can adapt to changing situations, and who one knows━plus God’s providence. (Truly, it’s all God’s providence.) We often assume, as a given, that the typical method of education (non-classical, secular, state-run) is designed to guarantee the graduate a job. We have this belief that one specializes in a particularly narrow field of study that corresponds to a specific job, and we believe that job is just sitting there waiting for the student to graduate. By implication, we think a classical education must, therefore, be a risk. This is a false assumption. Reality (and a little sanity) tells us otherwise.

Perhaps you can relate to my experience. When I finished my formal schooling I worked several entry-level jobs at very low pay that were somewhat related to my area of study. And yet, from the moment I first walked through the door of each of my employers I discovered I really didn’t know much and had to be trained from the ground up. After a few years I found I no longer worked in anything I could call “my field” or area of study. My formal education did little in terms of preparing me for the specific tasks required in the many jobs I’ve had since graduation, and eventually my education ceased to be specifically relevant at all. This is a common experience. But is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that a good liberal arts education (of which I got a little), and ideally a classical education, is the best foundation one can have for “getting a job” and, more importantly, forging a career.

What is a job? Let’s assume that everyone might say a job is a way to earn money so one can pay bills and buy basic necessities. And let’s assume that some will say that a job is a way to fulfill one’s desires or gifts or talents. And let’s assume that even some might say a job is a way to stay out of trouble. But let’s cut to the chase and declare that a job is first (and finally) a means of serving and worshiping God. If this sounds somewhat vague it is, but only because to serve and worship God can include a lot of activities. A short list of those activities would include, but not limited to, the following:

  • Providing for the needs of self, family, and others
  • Meeting obligations, such as paying bills and keeping promises
  • Benefiting others by serving them, improving their lives, and helping them flourish
  • Creating community by living consistently according to patterns of right action
  • Communicating truth by acting in accordance with Christ’s example
  • Loving others by doing all the above (while knowing that any job is contingent on God’s providence and subject to taking up our cross every day)

We must never think of “work” as a thing by itself, but as a part of living and thus being human. Education is not for merely getting a job. Education is for glorifying God, and so is work. At this point it should be stated what we desire for our children, and why we choose a Christian, classical education, is not that they will grow up and get a job, but that they will grow up into adults who love God, and live into that love through responsible and irrepressibly good actions that show God’s love for the world. Much of the time this love will take the form of work or labor. For a Christian, then, a “mere” job is not the goal. Rather, we should seek to train up our children for their vocation.

What is a vocation? The word comes from the Latin vocātiō, which has several interesting, intertwining meanings. It can mean a summons, an invitation, a bidding, and a calling. All of these can imply the idea of following the voice that calls to us, drawing us down a path towards a journey. Perhaps that voice is God’s. We are used to attaching these kinds of meanings to religious vocations like pastoring or mission work. But a vocation can be running a landscaping business, or creating computer programs, or teaching children, or building houses, or being a nurse. A vocation can be just about anything, but a vocation is deeper than a job. On the surface the two might look similar for a while. However, beneath the surface we discover a key difference: One “gets” a job, but one “gets got” by a vocation. A vocation enters one’s soul and changes a person. Our labors, in the end, are not about what we get, rather they are about what we become. A Christian, classical education prepares the student to hear the call of vocation and be ready for where it may lead.

So what about a classical education? Will it “pay off?” The answer is yes. The two most valuable skills that a person can have in pursuing a vocation is the willingness to work hard and the ability to think well. One cannot become classically educated without hard work. Good thinking is the result of pursuing virtue, of training the mind in the pursuit of the truth. The person who can think well knows how to learn, how to educate himself, how to figure out the world around him. The good thinker also understands what it means to be human and can see the image of God in others. Specific job-related skills are important, but jobs constantly change, demands shift, technology gets updated or replaced. One must be able to grasp new ideas, take hold of new demands, and fashion workable solutions. One of the ironies of a classical education is that the student studies the past in order to be better prepared for the future. A Christian classical education prepares the student for the present as well, for it is in the present that we love our neighbor.

Finally, what about specialization? What about the child who wants to grow up and become a doctor or lawyer or software engineer? The same principles apply for these vocations as well. The doctor, lawyer, and engineer must be able to think well, be able to self-educate, and serve God by loving others. The proper path to these professions includes the preparation for specialization. The student needs a solid foundation on which to then focus within their field. Much of that focusing will come later at the required training or post-graduate college level. What will carry the student through those years will be the years previously spent learning to work hard and learning to think well. A Christian, classical education is the best kind of preparation for any vocation.

Men need to believe that glory is possible. Belief (in the depths of their souls) that true glory is not possible, that glory was always a myth in which they can no longer legitimately believe, produces much of the malaise of modern man. This man—expressing that malaise in sloppy dress, banal rituals, perpetual adolescence, and constantly sought after distractions—has lost the compass of his nature. But man is made for glory, both temporal and eternal. He loses all hope if genuine glory is merely the ghost of ancient fantasies. Recovering the truth of glory is a critical principle of educating boys.

This article was first published on the Classical Conversations Writer’s blog.

“[A]s I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship…”
(Paul speaking to the Athenians)

“Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.”
(Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Will our children grow up to be thinking adults who understand their beliefs, know where those beliefs came from, and know how those beliefs fare in comparison to competing beliefs? Let’s begin to answer these questions by first looking at the world in which our children will grow up.

Our present age

This world is disordered and has been since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, but the modern soul suffers from a particular disordering. For millennia human beings lived within cultural boundaries of ready-made worldviews about nature and man, history and morality, life and death. Even as western societies expanded during the age of discovery they took with them the intellectual and social glue known as Christendom. They also brought along what we today call Christian, classical education (they would have merely called it education). But with modernity came a shifting of intellectual, social, political, economic, and spiritual tectonic plates possibly greater than any historical event save the coming of Christ. The shift (occurring mostly between the years 1650 to 1950) has been well documented, but it simply boils down to the movement from theism (with all its implications) to naturalism (with all its implications) to various reactions to naturalism.

A simple version of this shift might look something like this:

God exists, is infinite, personal, transcendent and
deeply involved in every aspect of His creation,
as seen most fully in the Incarnation.

God is transcendent but impersonal. He created the
world and set it in motion like a clock to run on it’s own.

Matter is all there is. God does not exist.

Therefore human beings are only complex, natural machines.
Therefore there is no basis for meaning and significance.

Human beings must create their own meaning.
One’s existence precedes one’s essence.
We are condemned to being free.

It is a downward path, from reason to irrationality, from God’s image in us to man is merely another animal. At this point one might seek answers elsewhere, perhaps in Eastern pantheistic monism, which says the soul of every human being is really just part of the Soul of the cosmos. Or one may find something more loosey-goosey, such as postmodern New Age spirituality, where one can create one’s own spiritual journey from a buffet of choices. And of course we often seek meaning in sports, politics, work, education, the arts, family, and the god of our age, consumerism. But it is still meaningless without an infinite, personal, transcendent and deeply involved creator God. The tragedy of mankind’s sinful nature includes the startling evidence that many choose ultimate meaninglessness rather than bowing the knee to God.

We are much like the frog in the pan of boiling water, unaware that we’re slowing cooking to death. We swim in these worldviews like fish in the sea. If we consider the world of just two hundred years ago and see what happened between then and now, we might see something like what Richard Tarnas described:

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination, and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (Tarnas, p. 388)

Consequently, we live in a pluralistic age, much like the age of the first Christians. The Apostle Paul in Athens was confronted by a people who had an endless capacity for both credulity and incredulity. Athens was the center of the intellectual world, a place where the love of speculation and debate ruled. It was also a highly religious city. Athens was full of the enticements of idols and opportunities for worship. However, both stiff incredulity and groundless credulity will eventually produce cynicism born from an inevitable and corrosive relativism. Our present age is also corrosively cynical. But we do not need to visit a geographic location like Athens to be surrounded by gods. Our world comes to us, and it does so with an intensity and vehemence such that one either becomes quickly overwhelmed or must take the defensive posture of numbness.

I feel this pressure constantly. I find everywhere the cynicism of relativism. We must be prepared to understand and carefully judge the constant opportunities for belief that confront us daily. Let us not lose sight of the truth as so much flotsam and jetsam in a sea of ideas and competing worldviews. As a homeschooling parent I have the responsibility to prepare my children to be in the world but but not of the world. I must help form their minds so that they are capable of making wise judgements about “objects of worship.” And, hopefully, that they come to love the adventure of discernment.

Among the best gifts I can give my children are great questions and the time to think them through.

The questions

Can truth be known, understood, and communicated? Are some dogmas worth believing and holding fast, and others to be rejected? What is it that my neighbor believes? What is it that I believe? Is there even any value in trying to find the answers, or are we just playing games?

Children traverse a chasm on the way to adulthood. That crossing is the process of leaving the comfort of belief for the sake of family to the passion of belief for the sake of self. It is the journey from childhood to adulthood, and it is a journey God created as an important part of human nature. It is, in short, a necessary part of coming to faith. Needless to say, eventually our children will be among wolves, whether they are thrown among them or discover they walked willingly (and perhaps naively) into their midst. If we believe that the grammar stage of learning can help prepare a child for the dialectic stage, and the dialectic for the rhetoric, then perhaps we can prepare our children for the chasm which begins in the dialectic stage. Perhaps we can encourage right thinking that still allows for the natural and necessary struggle to proceed as a ship handles rough seas with a good rudder and plenty of ballast. What is committed to memory provides the ballast and good principles of dialectic provide the rudder.

To help our children (and ourselves) with the dialectical engagement with worldviews we might begin with seven questions that can be asked of any worldview, any philosophical or theological system, and even of the core beliefs at the heart of any book or film. These questions I am stealing from James W. Sire’s book, The Universe Next Door. They are:

  1. What is prime reality─the really real?
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  3. What is a human being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?

Consider how powerful these questions can be as they lie in the background of our discussions. For most students (for anyone really) these questions are very difficult to answer. Surprisingly, most college graduates have never seriously considered these questions, or even know of their existence. But we are called to live examined lives. We are called to raise our children to live examined lives. We need to gently make these questions mandatory.

Belief has to come from within. We cannot make our children into authentic Christians. At some point they must personally choose to follow Christ or not. Like us they will feel the pressures of this age and the next. They will experience the chaos of competing ideas, the tensions of modernity, and the longing in their hearts for meaning. As parents we must acknowledge the reality of the world they live in, including its very real dangers. We must also model for our children good habits of thinking. And we must recognize that it is God’s design that our children will question the faith in which we have raised them, perhaps even rebel against that faith for awhile. One thing we can give them is a set of questions that will not let them off the hook.

Works cited:

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1989.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped our World View. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

I presented this essay/article in this year’s Classical Conversations practicum for discussion.

Hilarin Felder:

“Napoleon regarded this as precisely the most striking proof of the divinity of Jesus–namely, his power over men’s hearts. The once wellnigh all-powerful Corsican, in the solitude of his last days, called up before his imagination all the heroic figures and master minds of the world, and measured them by his own gigantic greatness. But all of them combined, and he himself as well, vanished like empty shadows before the person of Jesus Christ.”

Napoleon:

“What a conqueror!–a conqueror who controls humanity at will, and wins to himself not only one nation, but the whole human race. What a marvel! He attaches to himself the human soul with all its energies. And how? By a miracle which surpasses all others. He claims the love of men–that is to say, the most difficult thing in the world to obtain; that which the wisest of men cannot force from his truest friend, that which no father can compel from his children, no wife from her husband, no brother from his brother–the heart. He claims it ; he requires it absolutely and undividedly, and he obtains it instantly.

Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion. He kindles the flame of love which causes one’s self-love to die, and triumphs over every other love. Why should we not recognize in this miracle of love the eternal Word which created the world? The other founders of religions had not the least conception of this mystic love which forms the essence of Christianity.

I have filled multitudes with such passionate devotion that they went to death for me. But God forbid that I should compare the enthusiasm of my soldiers with Christian love. They are as unlike as their causes. In my case, my presence was always necessary, the electric effect of my glance, my voice, my words, to kindle fire in their hearts. And I certainly posses personally the secret of that magic power of taking by storm the sentiments of men; but I was not able to communicate that power to anyone. None of my generals ever learned it from me or found it out. Moreover, I myself do not possess the secret of perpetuating my name and a love for me in their hearts for ever, and to work miracles in them without material means.

Now that I languish here at St Helena, chained upon this rock, who fights, who conquers empires for me? Who still even thinks of me? Who interests himself for me in Europe? Who has remained true to me? That is the fate of all great men. It was the fate of Alexander and Caesar, as it is my own. We are forgotten, and the names of the mightiest conquerors and most illustrious emperors are soon only the subject of a schoolboy’s task. Our exploits come under the rod of a pedantic schoolmaster, who praises or condemns us as he likes.

What an abyss exists between my profound misery and the eternal reign of Christ, who is preached, loved, and worshipped, and live on throughout the entire world. Is this to die? Is it not rather to live eternally? The death of Christ! It is the death of a God.”

(Quoted in Hilarin Felder, Christ and the Critics, vol. 2, pp. 216-17)

V0007642EBR A man scatters seeds; representing the Biblical parable of t

Homo doctus in se semper divitias habet.

(A learned man always has wealth within himself.)

My life is littered with failed attempts to learn foreign languages. If there is such a thing as having a “knack” for learning languages I don’t have it. As my wife, kids, and I try to bring Latin more fully into the folds of our homeschooling adventure, I have discovered I am about as adept at learning Latin as a stump─though I think the stump may have me beat. But I am still hopeful, not so much because of what I see in me, but because other ordinary people like me have struggled with learning Latin and have succeeded. And though you should take everything I say with a grain of salt, I do believe three things about learning Latin:

  1. Learning Latin is a struggle, will always be a struggle, but it’s still possible to succeed. Plus it is worth the struggle for a host of reasons, not least of which are the value of doing hard things and the connection one derives with the past.
  2. Success is measured not so much in the mastery of Latin, but of Latin “mastering” you, that is, Latin entering one’s soul, setting down deep roots, and bringing about an ordering of the mind.
  3. The study of Latin is based on memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work.

Remember that famous speech president John F. Kennedy gave in 1962 about going to the moon? In that speech he said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard[.]” I love that. I love the idea of doing hard things. Not only do I dream about difficult adventures, I also dream about climbing mountains, reading thick books all the way through, and changing the world for the better. And of course I want to be like Christ. But in truth I am less inclined to actually do hard things. Hard things take great effort and are fraught with risk. It is so much easier to dream than to do.

Regardless, I have been diving into Latin and truly enjoying it. I am no expert in how to study Latin; I fumble, stumble, and get back up, but it’s really amazing how interesting Latin is. I feel more connected to history and old ideas. I see the roots of English and of all that French I struggled with during my school years. I am relearning valuable grammar lessons that have been buried too long in the recesses of my brain. And I sense the powerful order that Latin exudes. I want to be classically educated. I know I will never have the foundation and depth in Latin and the classics as C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers did, but I have more affinity with Lewis now that I have been scratching the surface of Latin.

And yet, for how much I enjoy Latin, it is also difficult work. I know studying Latin has always been difficult work, but I plead a special case─I am a card carrying member of Generation X, in other words I have trouble with memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work, particularly when it comes to something that is not obviously utilitarian or immediately pleasurable. But I have come to believe that Latin is good for me, and not merely good in the way eating vegetables or getting regular exercise are good. Studying Latin is a training of the mind, which is inseparably tied to character. True education is about formation not information. In other words, to be classically educated is to be molded into the kind of person, with the kind of mind and mental habits, that can appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty. The rigor inherent in studying Latin produces minds that can think well. It also inculcates minds with capacities to express good thoughts well. I do not say this from experience, rather I look to my betters, to those who have drunk deep from the classical well. In a nutshell it’s all there in Tracy Lee Simmons’ book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. He writes:

We recognize classical culture now not only by alabaster images of stony ruins, but also through thick gauze of verbal brilliance. The men whose words and ideas we remember best were citizens of a republic of letters. They had learned to think and speak and write with precision and flair. They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and to say it perfectly. (Simmons, p. 76)

How far I am from this ideal is so sad it’s almost humorous. Again Simmons:

While knowledge of truths may come first in the pecking order, one cannot get at those truths without the knowledge of words. Classical education sought to provide a training in words so as to grant an entrée to those truths. And the training began with Grammar, Usage, and Composition. Notice we say “training” here, not “education.” For education, rightly understood, is launched with training and drill. The educated mind must first know how to do, how to form and build, something. Education is the result; training is the method. Grammar, Usage, and Composition lend the starter sets for constructing that educated mind; they are the bricks and mortar, hammer and nails. But master architects draw the plans, not amateurs. (p. 162)

I now see clearly the poverty of my early education. Perhaps I am a bright guy, but most of the time I’m just hanging on. I know my education is built on a spindly foundation. My poor habits haunt me. My mind is narrow and feels truncated. My monolingual brain lacks the flexibility it should have. But it’s never too late to start, so I have begun.

Fortunately it is not too late for my children to start learning Latin either. As a father I have great responsibilities in fathering, and I have decided (actually my wife and I) to make Latin a central subject in our homeschooling curriculum. I want my children to grow up embracing the wonder of creation. I want them to love what God has made and given to us for our enjoyment. Words and things go together and are inseparable. I firmly believe that language is not merely a pointer to things, not merely a universe of sounds signifying objects, not merely a wrapper around creation. Rather, creation springs out of language. God spoke and the world came into being. It is only through the creative word of the author that a world is constituted. (I am borrowing this idea from Peter Kreeft who got it from J. R. R. Tolkien.) Language both creates and is the door into creation. Adam understood God’s creation and then himself by naming the animals─which required attentiveness and contemplation. Real things are found in words. Language goes to the very beginning, to the origin of things. Wonder of language and wonder of creation go hand in hand. Those who lack linguistic wonder will lack ontological wonder.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said in his Introduction to Metaphysics: “Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things.” (Heidegger, p. 11) I think Heidegger is right. We ought to be careful with language. We ought also to be intentional.

This sounds highfalutin and perhaps it is. But here I am, mediocre student of Latin with big dreams, thinking I will teach my children a language which I do not yet know. As a father I must lead by example. Thus I must commit myself to memorization, repetition, consistency, and hard work. Given my natural (fallen) tendencies perhaps prayer should come first. And along with prayer should be humility. But even here I should back up a bit. First things are critical. As C.S. Lewis put it: “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” (Lewis, p. 280) Latin is a second thing. In fact, the habits of mind that studying Latin produces are also second things. We do not teach Latin merely for the habits. We teach Latin because the habits of mind help our children to understand creation that much better. Grammar is a window unto the Creator, and through that window we see something of the glory of God and His goodness and His love for us and, of course, the story He is telling. (Remember Friedrich Nietzsche said, “[W]e are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”) We do not teach Latin for its own sake, nor even for the various benefits that come in its wake. We teach Latin so that we can know God and make Him known that much better.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961.

Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. 21 May 2012.

Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002.

Lily on the summit of Mount McLoughlin, elev. 9,495 ft

Every parent wants their child to become educated. Every school, whether public or private, secular or Christian, also aims to educate. Homeschoolers, for various reasons, choose to educate in the home and its environs. Christian schools and Christian homeschoolers aim to provide a Christ-centered education. Regardless, can we not say that all of us (Christian, secular, school, homeschool) are aiming at the same essential goal, but by different means? I say no. The Christian classical homeschooler seeks a different (perhaps radically so) end state than is commonly pursued in most schools, and even by many Christian schools and homeschoolers. In short, Christian classical homeschooling is not merely an alternate route to a common goal, it is a different journey altogether, with a different path and a different destination.

How should we define Christian classical homeschooling? This is not a new task, and others better than I have given it a try. If you’ve ever heard Leigh Bortins speak on Christian classical homeschooling you’ve heard her say the ultimate goal is to know God and to make Him known. Following are some additional insights from Bortin’s book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education:

The purpose of a classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything. (p. 15)

Thinking critically is not inherent in humans. It needs to be practiced repeatedly by comparing memorized ideas with new ideas in a logical manner. Internalizing a critical mass of words and ideas is the first step to thinking well. (p. 24)

Since the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, teachers believed the purpose of education was to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty and to develop wisdom and virtue. (p. 35)

Classical education encourages us that we are capable of becoming an Oxford don who builds bicycles, or a plumber who read Milton, or a business owner who spouts theology. The classically educated are not defined by their occupation so much as by their breadth of knowledge and understanding. (p. 40)

Not only does a classical education instill in us the tools of learning, it also allows us to evaluate both the follies and the wisdom of the past in comparison to the predicaments and the challenges of the present so that we will be less likely to make costly mistakes in the future. […] Rather than abandoning us to the moment, the classical model immerses us in the great classical conversations of mankind so that we can hear the voice of experience, discuss our present options within our community, and make choices with confidence that we have really done our best. The classical tools allow us to include classical content in our decisions. (pp. 214-215)

I will also hazard something angling towards a definition of Christian classical homeschooling by way of a list of foundational ideas:

  • God, not the child, is at the center. Thus education should not be “child centered” but God centered.
  • A student is a human being who has a human nature and a soul. Human beings are not merely complex machines that need training, but creatures imbued with the breath of God and who need truth, goodness, and beauty.
  • Human minds do not function like computers but grow like gardens. Thus teaching is a matter of cultivating in light of God’s design.
  • Learning is primarily a matter of attentiveness and contemplation.
  • The contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty is fundamental to becoming truly and fully human.
  • Knowledge rests upon the idea that all areas of study are, in fact, interrelated and expand in richness, grow in meaning, and increasingly fascinate as one explores that interrelatedness.
  • All truth is God’s truth.
  • Parents are ultimately responsible to teach their own children. This does not preclude the use of tutors, but it does contrast with public education which places the responsibility on the state.
  • The student is responsible to learn. Thus, educating one’s children is more about giving them the tools to educate themselves and fostering their characters such that they become excellent learners than it is to impart facts or ideas.
  • For the young, the intimacy of the home is the best place for education. We are designed to learn in an environment that is both loving and connected to real life.
  • Next to a loving home environment, being in nature is the second best place for education. Nature is not the same thing as a playground.
  • Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.
  • Loving God is the goal. This includes knowing God and making Him known. We love God with our minds as well as our hearts.
  • The trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium provide the methodological structure that has guided classical studies for centuries. I put this last because it is common for proponents of classical education to go here first, but method is first a servant of the principles and goals of education. The trivium and quadrivium flow from (or are implied in) the list above.

At this point I want to use an analogy: Educating one’s children is like climbing a mountain. It is arduous and, at times, dangerous. Climbing a mountain can be a difficult and beautiful journey at the same time, and so can Christian classical homeschooling.

I have always loved the mountains. God seems very present in the high peaks. And I love climbing mountains, though I’m better at reading about mountaineers than being one. One thing I have learned from climbing mountains is that the route is critical. The summit is a long way off when one is at the bottom of a mountain, and the journey will no doubt be difficult and tiring. It is best to have clear idea of how one is to proceed, of what path one will follow, and to be prepared for the dangers that will inevitably appear. What I want to propose is that Christian classical homeschooling is not merely a different path up the same mountain everyone else is climbing. It is, in fact, the climbing of a different mountain altogether. Christian classical homeschooling is, for many, a radical and difficult shift from familiar ground to new and perplexing terrain. In fact, it can be nearly impossible for us to change course, especially if we feel we are experimenting on our children.

I see three basic reason we might hesitate to try Christian classical homeschooling:

  1. We bring our own experiences and knowledge with us. We often make decisions based on previous experience rather than critical thought. We follow “our gut.” If our own experiences do not include Christian classical homeschooling, then we might balk.
  2. We follow the crowd. If everyone else is public schooling shouldn’t we? It can’t be all that bad surely. But is this a good enough reason not to do something different?
  3. We feel pressure from outside, including parents, friends, and our culture. Christian classical homeschooling is as foreign to others (maybe more so) as the parent considering it. Parents and friends often want what is best for us and our kids too, but they have the same hesitations as everyone else when it comes to what they don’t know.

But I’ve learned some things from mountaineering:

  1. If one is on the wrong route, pick a different one.
  2. If one must backtrack, do it now, do not linger.
  3. If one has the wrong map, get a better one.
  4. And most important: know what mountain one is climbing. If you’re climbing the wrong mountain, get off the one you’re on and start climbing the right mountain, even if changing is hard.

In his book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, Tracy Lee Simmons argues for a return to classical studies, specifically the study of Greek and Latin and their corresponding ancient cultures. To the classical mind to “climb Parnassus” was code for striving (doing the hard work) to become what man ought to become, to become “his better, divinely inspired self.” (p. 15) “The hard, precipitous path of classical education ideally led not to knowledge alone, but the the cultivation of mind and spirit.” (p. 16)

I would further Simmons’ thinking by stating that a Christian classical homeschooling education pursues the cultivation of mind and spirit by placing God at the center and Christ as our example. Two statements from the Apostle Paul are worth considering at this point:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Education begins not with the methodology, but with the goal. What are the things we will think on? For what prize are we running? What mountain are we climbing?

[A version of this article was first published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

There is only one thing necessary in homeschooling and in life. That one thing is our full attention to, and adoration of, Christ. Ironically, at the very place where we are tempted to reply, “yes, but…” we find the answer to our hectic and busy lives.

Oh Martha

We get overwhelmed with homeschooling. This is not surprising for we also get overwhelmed with parenting, work, housekeeping, relationships, and life. Perhaps we are overwhelmed because we are Americans, and Americans have their foibles, but more likely it’s because we are just human; we take on too much and worry too much. The problem is that most of what we try to do is good. For homeschoolers the good comes in many forms: we schedule activities, prepare lessons, guide our children through their studies, and we are generally at it constantly. We can make a mile long list of all the good things to do. But even if we could complete that list we would likely miss the point, the one thing that makes homeschooling (and all education) worthwhile. What is that one thing? The answer is simple, though not easy; and it’s something every Christian should know, but we lose sight of it all the time. What is it? Luke presents it better than I ever could:

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB)

We too are worried and bothered about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Choose the good part and it will not be taken away from you. Mary chose the one necessary thing. Will we?

I love this little story, but as with so many of my favorite Bible passages, I am am troubled by it. Consider the situation. Christ is present with his followers. These people love him. They care about him and they want to serve him. They want to serve others around him as well, and by doing so they are supporting His ministry. Christ came declaring the kingdom of God and these people want to be a part of that kingdom. Martha is intent on doing her part. She is laboring, taking on extra work. We know that being a good host was highly valued in those days and in that culture. And here Christ himself was in Martha’s house. This was a big deal. Was not Martha right in expecting her sister to help, even just a little? What in the world was Mary doing?

Mary was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. She was fully attentive to Christ.

Does this not translate to our lives as well? We are serving God and His kingdom by raising and teaching our children in the way of Christ, are we not? We want to serve God, to serve others, to live out the kingdom of God here and now. How then can we forsake these duties, these good things, for something that looks like we’re loafing? In short, how are we going to teach our children all that they must know; and how are we going to get everything done, if we merely sit at Christ’s feet? Isn’t Martha right? Perhaps she needs to chill out a little, but on the whole isn’t she focused on the right things? Aren’t we right to fill our homeschooling days with a plethora of activities, lists, timelines, conjugations, papers, etc? Shouldn’t we be trying to get it all done?

The One Thing

I am also troubled by this story in part because I am not sure I fully grasp Christ’s meaning. Just what is the one thing?

Let’s think about this a little more. Every day we have the opportunity to serve, every day we can (at least in our hearts) be at our Lord’s feet. In Mary’s case Christ was actually, physically there. Where else could Mary be but at his feet? Martha was doing good, but she was not choosing the best part, the one thing. Martha hosted but Mary adored. Martha served but Mary worshiped. Martha was about getting the work done. Mary knew it was about Christ. Perhaps Martha was right to serve, but she was wrong to worry about it, and she probably should have set aside her worries and duties and just sat with Mary at Christ’s feet.

Could it be that the one thing is Christ Himself? Or perhaps, we should say the one thing is the proper orientation of our souls, or the right perspective on life, that comes from trusting entirely in God and understanding the true nature of His grace. Maybe it’s the same thing. Christ is the still point around which all of creation turns. In Him is the summation, revelation, and incarnation of God’s great master plan━a plan that is filled with mercy, is trustworthy, and is for our salvation.

The question remains: What does this look like in our lives today? How should this play out in our homeschooling contexts, on our Classical Conversations’ campuses, and in our daily struggles?

Our Choice

In our homeschooling we are faced with the choice of being a Martha or a Mary. The difficulty is that Martha offers the stronger appeal to us. We have so much to do, so much to get done. And those things often do need to get done. But the truth is we really don’t want to be told our “to do” lists are missing the point much of the time. If we are not careful, Martha will be our hero.

Perhaps we can get to the essence of Christ’s gentle statement to Martha by contrasting it with what we find so often in the world. Whether in our modern world or in the ancient world, the evidence points to a constant scurrying of human activity that hustles and bustles towards ever increasing busyness and ever increasing worries. We are full of the cares of the world. We are burdened with desires and concerns. Our schools, public and Christian, are bursting with activities. All too often schools exemplify the disease of the age with their multiplicity of subjects, standards, tests, grades, technologies, goals, curricula, hoops to jump through, levels to attain, packed lesson plans, and constant worries.

But what if one doesn’t get all of it done? What if one’s children do not get through the lesson in the allotted time? Or what if you do a bad job of teaching a lesson? What if a student fails to memorize the history timeline, or gets her conjugations mixed up, or just plain can’t sit still today? In those situations where is your compass pointing? What is your ultimate destination? Why are you even bothering to homeschool?

The Big Picture

Just a few verses after the scene with Mary and Martha, the disciples are asking Jesus how they should pray. In those days to ask a Rabbi how to pray was like asking him to sum up the essence of his teaching in a short, easy to remember statement. Jesus replies by saying they should pray this way:

“Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:2b-4, NASB)

Notice first what is said: The prayer begins by praising God, then desiring His kingdom to come. Next is a plea for basic needs to be met. Forgiveness is then asked for, followed by a reminder of what condition must be met in order to be forgiven. Finally there is a request to be kept from temptation. Now notice what is not said: “Lord help us to get everything done, give us the strength to finish our “to do” lists, make sure our children complete their homework, help us to make successful lesson plans, and please solve the laundry pile.”

Certainly we have a lot to get done. We have taken on the great task of educating our children. But we must not lose sight of the one thing necessary. As we devise our curricula, make our lesson plans, teach our children, and prod them in their homework, we must remember to choose the good part that will not be taken away. Let us be fully attentive to Christ and REST in Him.