The following notes are for a talk I gave at our school’s Information Night.
Our school board recently finished reading through and discussing the Chronicles of Narnia together. I’m also part of another group of adults, many of whom are parents of current school students, working through the Chronicles as secondary reading for something we call Omnibus Tenebras. Then we have our annual Fiction Festival coming in March and the theme is going to be all things Narnian and Lewisian. So I reentered Aslan’s orbit seven months ago and have been spinning since.
Reading through the series again I noticed a question asked by Professor Kirke near the start of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which he asks in a similar form two more times in The Lion) and which he asks again near the end of The Last Battle. Sort of aloof, as he is, and exasperated, he wonders out loud, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” The first time he was lamenting Peter and Susan’s lack of logic. The last time, when his beard was golden, he was wondering why they hadn’t read Plato. Well, in our school, we teach Logic, and Plato. And we teach the Chronicles of Narnia!
One of Lewis’ literary contemporaries and friends was Dorothy Sayers. You may have heard her name before associated with classical education due to a paper she read at Oxford in 1947, that she then published as a journal article, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Along with Lewis, she was concerned about what was and what wasn’t being taught to students. If Sayers or Lewis or both of them could see what’s happening in our government education system some seventy years later, I can’t imagine what narrative tirade might have been unleashed (though That Hideous Strength would cover a lot). Although Edmond didn’t want to recognize that the White Witch was no good, at least he could recognize that the White Witch was a girl. The fight between good and evil didn’t get all the way down to gender pronouns. “Bless ze, what do they teach at these schools?”
It was Sayers who reintroduced the Trivium, the three ways of education, which are 1) Grammar, 2) Logic (or Dialectic), and 3) Rhetoric. These are the first three of the seven liberal arts, liberal in reference to men who are free, and she in particular had the insight to connect each method of learning to each phase of a student’s development.
The youngest students are like parrots. Play them a catchy song and they will sing it until parents quickly pass from the stage of thinking it’s cute to the stage of being amazed at what their student is capable of memorizing and into the stage of being annoyed that their student doesn’t get tired of it. There is a grammar to every subject, facts that are ripe for harvest in very field of study. Nouns and verbs are language grammar, addition and subtraction are math grammar, colors are for art and notes are for music grammar, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is history grammar.
As students mature toward junior high they hit a stage that is harder to call cute, and it’s also hard to call mature. They’re in the process of figuring out where all the things go. They are building mental shelves to sort and categorize all the grammar they’ve collected. They start start asking more questions and seeing more connections. They also start their arguing engines, and, as Sayers acknowledged their extremely high “nuisance value,” why not at least show them how to argue logically?
The third stage is not just gravy on the cake or icing on the meat. There is really cake and meat; icing on cotton balls offers no nutrition, and gravy on cardboard might trick you for a moment, but there’s no satisfaction. So truth cake and good meat are necessary underneath and then rhetoric tops them off. Rhetoric skills enable a young man or woman in mid to late high school to take substance and polish it. The polish might come via poem or prose, painting or presentation, but it’s taking what’s already valuable and making it shine.
ECS teaches all the subjects, be it Bible/theology, Music, Math, Science, English, Logic, Latin, Literature, Writing, Rhetoric, and History with the Trivium methods in mind, and we do it in Jesus’ name because He holds all the ends together.
I’ve been struck in recent months by what makes the Trivium so fruitful. I’ve been reading about and trying to share a vision of the Trivium since before we had a school, since my wife informed me that my participation in homeschooling our 2nd grader at the time was not optional. I’ve believed that students plus the Trivium adds up to great things for over a decade now. But it is multiplied by teachers.
If you want to know why you should register your kids for ECS before you leave the building tonight, what you really need to do is get to know the teachers. They are the multiplying function. We’re not making them present their resumes as part of the program, but that wouldn’t do any of them justice anyway.
Jesus said: every disciple, that is, every learner, every student, will be just like his teacher.
When my wife and I were trying to homeschool, we realized that we wanted our daughter and her younger siblings to be more than us. This wasn’t a cop out, as if we could merely sit back and trust our kids’ enculturation to others. It meant we had even more to do, which included trying to convince some other parents to join us in this crazy hard, crazy great, crazy blessed work.
The Trivium is not better than I thought; the Trivium is fantastic. But when the Trivium methods are practiced by those who care, the outcomes are way better than I thought. This is a mathematical operation, a factor function. Take a number, add another number, get a higher total. But take a number and put a multiplier between it and another number, and watch out.
ECS is more than the sum of its parts. I was reminded of it again while reading the following in a book titled, Anitfragile:
Collaboration has explosive upside, what is mathematically called a superadditive function, i.e., one plus one equals more than two, and one plus one plus one equals much, much more than three….since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you cannot see where the world is going. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundation for prosperity.
John Milton Gregory wrote in The Seven Laws of a Teacher that the ideal teacher is “an incarnate assemblage of impossible excellencies.” We have an excellent assemblage for collaboration.
We have teachers who have lived in tents while remodeling their houses, who muck horse stalls before sunrise, who knit hats and dolls and sew scaled down ECS uniforms for American Girl Dolls, who scrounge through the woods for sticks to make bows and read multi-volume bower bibles about how to do it. Our teachers exercise, slow cook and crock pot, read for pleasure, write for pleasure, and most importantly, they worship faithfully on the Lord’s Day. They invest in more than the students in their classes, and that’s why they have something for their students. They aren’t finished, but they are learning to learn, and that’s exactly what we want for our students.
Christian and classical education has some great ideas behind it and before it, but the ideas themselves could not make ECS great. The Trivium plus students multiple by teachers make it great in ways that couldn’t be scripted.
Our school mission starts by saying that “We commend the works of the Lord to another generation….” And I am commending the works of the Lord to you now. At ECS we are looking at and learning the grammar of His works, and the logic of how His works fit together, and how to adorn His works at image bearers through rhetoric. And I am also blessed to say, ECS is is itself a work of the Lord, and our teachers are a multiplying factor in making Marysville great again. #mmga
We want to bless you, both by what we teach at this school, and by those who teach at it.
TL;DR or Abstract: The gospel is good news that Jesus died so that we might live. As Christians the gospel is not only something we must believe and proclaim, it is also something we must embody. Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, teachers have many and various opportunities to bring life to their students (and the students’ families) by dying. Such dying to bring life sets the course of the classroom and also shows the students how to live like Christ.
Wow! What a privilege it is to be here, to be a part of this first evar ACCS Regional Teacher In-Service Day, to have the opportunity to address you all and hopefully to give you some gospel encouragement for your labor in the Lord this morning. I love classical and Christian education. I love the ACCS, I love PCCS (where our oldest two kids got to attend for a year), and I love our toddler school. I am thankful to God for all that He is obviously and abundantly doing among us.
As for why I get to talk, well, my headmaster volunteered me, and none of the other headmasters/principles knew better. I definitely have a curriculum vitae to talk to teachers about teachering, and that resume is full of_incompetencies_ rather than masteries. I suppose if all the books could be written of the ways I could be a better teacher, all the school libraries in the world could not contain them.
But I do care. I care as an image-bearer of the God who mandated that we take dominion of all this stuff He’s created for and given to us. I care as a Christian because Jesus is Lord over every thumb’s width in the world that man can grab. I care as a parent of four students, as a pastor of parents, as a board member at our school, and as a teacher. I do not think I’m particularly gifted for the classroom, yet in some ways maybe that makes me a great person to talk about it because I have to make premeditated decisions.
The first decision requires me to determine: what do I want to accomplish? There are a number of excellent ways to answer to that question, but I’ve been answering it the last few years in an outlandish way. I want to turn Marysville into a destination.1 Have you been to Marysville? I bet we have more auto parts stores than your city, at least per capita, and certainly more on the main drag. We do have a spectacular whale fountain in front of our casino and an outlet mall that draws international customers, though those are technically not Marysville, but they are at the Marysville exits. There are also three Walmarts we can count as ours, so it’s a start. But I would love to be a part of making our city a place that Christians love to live, work, and grow.
That starts with working to make my home a destination that my kids want to be in, and then by extension to make my classroom a destination that my students want to be in. I want them wanting to be there. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this, but rather than dimming the lights and unfolding blankets and burning some sweet smelling candles with plenty of therapy puppies to pet, I want my classroom to be filled with the aroma of my many deaths.
That might sound like an odd ambition, but it is a gospel objective, just applied in the context of a school.
Death Is at Work
You may or may not remember a pseudo-evangelical movement that was popularish a decade ago called the Emergent Church. It was easy to tell who was part of the movement because they hated being stereotyped. They also were really keen on relationships and life, so lots of the churches scrapped the name “church” (too constricting) for something like “community” (more authentic). Many threw out their pulpits and pews and sat in couches drinking coffee and had conversations. Okay. But one of their core propositions, ironic since they were suspicious of propositions, was that Christians needed to incarnate the gospel.
That way of talking made me nervous for a couple reasons. Jesus is the incarnate Word, God in flesh, yes. But God taking on flesh is not something for us to repeat. We are already fleshy/fleshly, and more critically, we’re not God. The incarnation of Jesus is totally other than our experience. Incarnating the gospel also seemed wrong because the gospel is a message for us to preach, not a model for us to practice. I argued emphatically, definitively, that we should not use this language.
And I was wrong, because this is how the apostle Paul spoke about his ministry in a couple places, including Colossians 1:24 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
The “jars of clay” are “our bodies,” “our mortal flesh,” so the treasure of the gospel is contained not just in our brains or mouths. And what’s happening in the flesh? “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” can’t mean that we’re being martyred, like a sledgehammer to a ceramic pot, once and done. The ones who are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,” they are also the ”we who live,” and it’s happening “always.” You can’t do it “always” if the dying here is body-buried-death. Somehow “death is at work” and, based on the first part of the paragraph, dying is related to being brought to our breaking points in the four “but nots.”
And what is the result of the exercise of dying? Two related things: 1) The life of Jesus is manifested and 2) life works in those for whom we’re dying. This is the gospel: death brings life. We announce the gospel, for sure. We are Christian schools. We’ve got to, and we get to, point our students to Christ as the only name under heaven by which we can be saved. But those of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 4:5) are also practicing servants of the Lord (same verse), and we show God’s surpassing power as we are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” This is incarnating the gospel, it is embodying the good news that death brings life.
This isn’t referring to a teacher taking a bullet for a student. That could be done as a final act of love, but it is a one-time death. The dying, the being given over to death, the always carrying the death of Jesus, refers, ironically, to a way of living that brings life to others. So here’s a stipulative definition of dying: giving up something considered vital, often causing pain, for the joy of another.
Death by a Thousand Papers to Grade
What does dying look like then? How does the abstract get concrete? This is the glory of it, I don’t even know all the ways. But here are some dying assumptions and some scenarios.
My Dying Teacher Assumptions
Three of these should be good enough to give you the idea.
First, I assume that students will not remember the homework assignment and that parents will not read the assignment either. Homework, assigning how much and the grading thereof, is its own thing, which I’ll bring up again under the scenarios. This also matters whether you have parrot, pert, or poetic students; the older they are, the more they should be responsible and the younger they are the more their parents will need to pay attention. But unless the assignment itself is to see if they can follow your Rube Goldberg assignment, then die to your expectation that all you need to do is say it once and you’re done. If you always respond to your headmaster’s first email requesting your response, then you can have a scratch-n-sniff sticker on your inbox in the teachers’ lounge, but you might be the only one.
Second, and related to the first, I assume that parents have other things to do than what I am now requiring of them, especially when it comes to grammar students. Some of your schools meet five days a week, some, like our school, have a day or more when teachers give work that should be done during “school at home.” But the assumption works for plain old “homework” too. We only get so many minutes a day in class, and there are a lot of Indispensable Lessons, but it’s not always apparent that teachers realize other things happen after school, or that parents are not sitting at home clicking the refresh button in their browser to check for new homework.
Yes, we are serving parents, and parents should know what is happening with their students. Yes, parents are ultimately responsible to God for their student’s education. Yes, sometimes you need for the student to do some extra work outside of class. But how many classes do they have, and how many teachers had extra work for outside of class that same day, and how much help is that student going to need for that assignment?
Third, I assume that, even if parents read the assignment, and even if parents sacrifice their other work for sake of helping their student, they still probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha! So I use complete sentences, albeit as short as possible. I also RTUA = refuse to use abbreviations. It could be the third quarter, and you’re using the same abbreviation you’ve used for the Saxon Time Fact Sheets all year long without a problem, but for some reason mom is out of town and dad needs to help and the fourth grader doesn’t know what “TFS” means. If you’re using an online homework application, put your Keystroke Saving Program to death. Maybe you’ll get RSI (repetitive stress injury), but it will be life to your people. If you’re a printer of assignments to paper, pluck up, there are plenty of trees.
My Dying Teacher Scenarios
It’s Monday morning, or Thursday evening, or whenever, and you get a text message from a parent asking if there’s Latin homework because there is nothing in Renweb, Sycamore, etc. You realize that you were interrupted right when you were going to post it, and you forgot, but you had told the students in class what you wanted them to do. Do you:
A) Do nothing because you gave a verbal assignment?
B) Quickly post the assignment and expect that all the families will look at it and complete it?
C) Post it and notify the parents via a special group email or text?
D) Take the curricular bullet and have the students complete the assignment the next day in class?
Of course there are other variables, including whatever agreements and expectations there are between the school and parents about how and when homework is to be communicated. But if your immediate reaction is, “They should have remembered the assignment.” Then if it’s so easy, why didn’t you remember to put it online?
There are other options than panic. Email or text the families and say that due to your error, the assignment will be graded for extra credit for those who remembered to do it, or it will be finished in class and won’t be graded. Die to your pride, and sometimes it’s okay to die to your plan.
Here’s another scenario. You only have so many classroom minutes, and you really want to talk about Augustine, and you really need to give a memory verse quiz and a test. Do you:
A) Scrap waxing eloquent about Augustine and just do the boring quiz and test?
B) Punt the tests to the parents to administer at home so you can talk about Augustine?
C) Something else?
You are the teacher! Teach! Augustine is educational, even if you (wrongly) call him Augustine. The bishop of Hippo is probably applicable somehow to your curriculum. So ask yourself some questions. Is sending the test home instead of other homework better? Or is sending the test home something you’ve never done in that class and would likely cause confusion? Could you hold off talking about Augustine until next week, and plan to tweak the lesson plans to include it? Or could you move the test to next week instead?
There are other common scenarios too. Do you have a fussy student? Die (to your impatience) for him. Do you have fussy parents? Die (to your irritation) for them. Are you overwhelmed, not sure how to do the next day? Die.
You have so many ways to die to give life:
Give everyone all the points, or make that assignment extra credit.
Use someone who takes a perfect quiz as a grade for all (like justification).
Scrap the assignment all together, or assign just the odd problems, or only one page instead of the two, etc.
Teachers are especially tempted to pass the pressure off to others when:
When they are unprepared.
When they are upset with someone else, their spouse, their own kid, another student from another class.
When they made a mistake.
When they failed to communicate (as expected).
When they mismanage and run out of time (in class).
What do you tolerate in you that you wouldn’t tolerate in a student?
Dying to bring life is simple, not simplistic. There are qualifications, sure. I’m not arguing for a Montessori pedagogy, or that teachers never hold their students responsible. But we ought to be holding them to the standard when it is more, or at least equally, costly for us.
The gospel affects more than our content, it affects our methods. The gods of men demand sacrifices from men, and the system is rigged. The God of men sacrificed Himself, in Christ, for men, and the salvation is by grace. In most cases you are bigger, stronger, and smarter than your students. That means you could bully them, but it also means that you are equipped to sacrifice for them in powerful ways, not that you are equipped to lord it over them. That is the way of the Gentiles. When it comes to dying, it should be me first. That is some lesson.
Death isn’t just okay, it is the way of authority and glory. If sacrifice is glory, which it was for Jesus, then we reflect glory in the timely sacrificing of our lesson plans, our homework plans, etc.
As Julius Campbell told Gerry Bertier in “Remember the Titans”:
Campbell: You been doing your job?
Bertier: I’ve been doing my job.
Campbell: Then why don’t you tell your white buddies to block for Rev better? Because they have not blocked for him worth a plug nickel, and you know it! Nobody plays. Yourself included. I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team? Nah, nah what I’m gonna do is look out for myself and I’ma get mine. Bertier: See man, that’s the worst attitude I ever heard.
Campbell: Attitude reflects leadership, captain.
I really hoped for a particular audience response at this point, and I totally got it. A lady in the front row let out a snort loud enough for the whole room to hear. I couldn’t have scripted it better.↩
These are my notes for our school’s convocation last week.
As the end of every school year draws closer, it often (for me it always) feels like a ship in a storm. The final weeks of the fourth quarter pound like wet, wild wind that threatens to break the ship apart unless it reaches the harbor of summer break. Such a violent storm hit the Dawn Treader once upon a time, destroying the mast and almost drowning the vessel. If you know the story, she did make it to land for repairs and rest.
Summer break is natural port for students and teachers. The break is a blessing and allows for a certain amount of renewal and refreshment. But just as ships are built to sail, so students are made to study. Here we are on the first day of another school year to launch our vessels off the dock toward new adventures in letters.
People used to speak about being “lettered.” To be a man of letters meant more (though not less) than knowing one’s alphabet. Phonograms are fantastic, but they are only the beginning. A man of letters was a man who was literate, a reader of letters and books, a learner of knowledge passed through pen and paper. The Respublica literaria enabled men to study across great distances, communicating through correspondence and becoming a community of curiosity and contemplation.
We launch into another voyage on a sea of letters. We launch as a special crew, and I want to call us together (hence, convocation) to remember our glorious calling.
Toward that end I would like to focus on three letters (of the alphabet sort), letters that identify us, letters you will use on a frequent basis, letters that abbreviate the name of our school. The letters are ECS. Let’s work from the end back to the beginning.
This sturdy noun anchors our name. The first two words describe what sort of school it is, but school has a meaning on its own.
Our word comes from the Latin scola referring to a group for learning or instruction. The teacher or teachers are the first learners, the guides for learning, and ideally provoking learning among their pupils. A school is only somewhat her facilities; our school is in its third building and, while we do associate school with a particular place, school has much more to do with the practice of the people.
School is not your family, though enduring camaraderie does develop. You may refer to your classmates as a kind of family, but teachers can only support your dad and mom. In fact, we do not want their job, though we work on their behalf.
School also isn’t your church, or your state government. Worship happens here, but it is not like that of an entire church body. Likewise we discuss politics, but we aren’t making or enforcing laws.
But a school has her own special accountability to God. Her sphere is to study and sharpen one another for the sake of using our God-given minds and exercising our dominion-taking mandate. These are your fellow scholars, and your uniform identifies you as part of this elite learning force.
Many schools exist; many of them started again today. Your family may drive by a dozen other schools on your way to ECS each morning. We do not claim to be better than all the other options in every way, but we are different, purposefully so, than most of our counterparts. We are a classical school.
“Classical” does not mean the same thing to everyone, even those who call their schooling classical. At ECS we think about the nature of classical schooling at a higher level than the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric), though those are tools we use. Maybe the mainsail of the classical ship is that we recognize, with thanks, that we are in a long river of those who have studied and spoken and loved the truth. We are not isolated, we are dependent. We are not better, we are blessed. We are not more capable, we are more accountable for the gifts we’ve inherited from generations before us.
We’ve come to receive definitions, not destroy them or deny them. We take the identity God appointed, and that many of our (dead) teachers knew better than our modern prophets who cry “Truth, truth,” when they have only lies and darkness.
The waters of history are also full of classical snobs (which we do not want you to be), when, in fact, there is no good reason for our pride. Abraham Kuyper observed that:
[T]o study any discipline at all takes such a huge effort that even if you make no higher demand than to be a half-decent participant, there is just no time left to feed the tiniest microbe of self-conceit.
—Scholarship: Two Convocation Addresses on University Life
We have too much to do to be snooty.
This is the most decisive of the letters, and the one we would choose if we could only have one. Evangel is English via Latin from Greek. It means good news, another name for gospel, which is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is of first importance.
Most schools in our day take a principled stand against religious exclusivity. They promote their version of tolerance by relegating faith as a private, personal matter. They want to multiply everything by zero, but this always equals zero. We, on the other hand, know that we cannot separate our beliefs about God, about mankind, and about the world. We know that our public work, our classroom work and our homework, whether in History or Science or Algebra or English, is the Lord’s work and He both demands and delights in our recognition of Him.
We study because we are forgiven in Christ, not to work for our forgiveness. We are free to learn, we do not learn in order to make us free. Saved students study, we do not say that students must study in order to be saved. This orients our attitude toward the labor of learning (all is gift) and toward our fellow learners (give with grace).
The center of the evangel is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ. He reigns as the first one resurrected from the dead. He also reigns as the Maker and Sustainer of all things. There is not one thumb’s width in the entire sphere of human existence over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” So go on and learn His ways and study His stuff and organize the chaos for His name.
I referred to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader earlier. It is my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia. I especially enjoy Reepicheep’s euphoric rapture as he sails east into Aslan’s Country. We who trust the Lord and serve Him will go there someday ourselves, but isn’t it also the case that all of this is Aslan’s Country? “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “All things are yours…whether the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
As the ship sets sail for our seventh year at ECS, may we all take up our stations with eagerness and a sense of belonging and stewardship and laughter. By God’s wisdom and sovereign will, He has elected you to this course of study. Remember: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). Bon voyage and Godspeed.
These were the notes from my talk for the ECS Fundraising Feast at the beginning of May.
On the first day Evangel Classical School met for classes I read the following quote from C. S. Lewis during my convocation address.
If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.
I had seen that quote in a few places, most applicably on the back cover of a book about classical Christian education. I quoted it to comfort those of us with more butterflies than boldness. It’s similar to the panic a rookie teacher might feel upon opening a fresh box of dry erase markers to find that none of them came with caps; would we open a school only to squeak out a faint mark? Our circumstances, while certainly not the worst they could have been, were not favorable. We were far from bouquets of newly sharpened pencils, or even from knowing which brand of pencil sharpener would survive for more than a week. We aspired to this noble task, though having more zeal than knowledge doesn’t always work out so well. We all know more than we did then—thank God—and that includes knowing that classical Christian education is an indispensable burden. We want it even more badly now.
Since that opening of opening days I have read Lewis’ quote in its native paragraph. He used those lines in an address titled “Learning in Wartime.” You can find it for free online or in a collection of Lewis’ articles called The Weight of Glory.
In his address Lewis raised and replied to a question about the legitimacy of study—especially study of the liberal arts—while in the middle of a war. It was October, 1939, and World War II was less than two months old. From the location of Lewis’ lectern in Oxford, England, his listeners were more than academically concerned.
[Every student] must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything.
Lewis argued from the greater to the lesser. He showed that Christians believe that death is always only one step away and that Heaven or hell await. A war reminds us of our upcoming death but it does nothing to increase the chance of our death. We have always been going to die.
The vital question is not whether learning in wartime is defensible but whether learning during any of our time on earth is. If teachers can, if teachers should, sow seed in the scholastic field with eternal reward or eternal punishment on the other side of the fence, then teaching and learning is appropriate when nations fight over a portion of the field.
Lewis observed that God gave men an appetite for knowledge and beauty. Want of security has never stopped the search, otherwise “the search would never have begun.” Instead,
[Men] propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
God didn’t make tastes and give men tongues to make them feel guilty for not caring about eternity. He made tastes for tongues so that we would eat and drink what “God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” The apostle Paul figured that Christians would go to dinner parties, sometimes dinner parties thrown by pagans. He didn’t instruct the Christians what to say, he told them what to put on their plate. If there’s a way to hunger for barbecue “to the glory of God,” then certainly there’s a God-honoring way to hunger for knowledge.
Lewis concluded that, not only is the pursuit of knowledge before Heaven and hell permitted, it is mandatory. God doesn’t concede study to us, He commands it. God gifts some to study more deeply but He calls every image-bearer to study devotionally. That is, our reading of both of God’s books—the world and the Bible—should increase our devotion to God. English homework and ethical holiness don’t compete against each other, they inform and activate one another.
The Lord’s commission requires us to make more than converts who profess faith. We are to make disciples who practice faith, here and now, on earth. “Disciple” is not even a good English word. It is a Latin word sounded out for English. The Latin word is discipulus which means student, learner. It’s exactly what the Greek word mathetes means in Matthew 28.
Jesus said, “Teach [disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you.” God made us to be, then saved us to be, then train others to be certain kinds of persons. He created and redeemed us to live a certain way. It is to live—whether thinking, talking, reading, writing, painting, working, playing, buying, selling, mowing, weeding, cooking, cleaning—in such a way that acknowledges Jesus is Lord. This is our confession, something we say. It is also our obsession, something we embody.
Jesus created all things. “Without Him was not any thing made that was made.” Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” He delights to keep gravity pulling and goats skipping and planets spinning. All true science is the Lord’s; insects and volcanoes and circus animals. He rules over every nation, “having determined allowed periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” and presidents and trending political hashtags on Twitter. Languages? He is the Word. Numbers and physics and formulas, musical notes and Picardy thirds, logic and literature are all from Him and through Him and to Him.
Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. (Psalm 111:2)
We cannot imagine anything lawful that cannot be studied and appreciated and used for His lordship. Imagination itself ought to be sanctified and put to His service. So Lewis said,
[H]uman culture is [not] an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we.
Everything we do that is done “as to the Lord” is received by the Lord.
None of the above requires a school per se, but this life of discipleship is not different from classical Christian enculturation. We received a way of life under Christ’s lordship and we seek to pass that on. There is a way to talk to adults that pleases Christ, a way to dress, a way to respond when someone kicks a soccer ball in your face, a way to listen and match pitch with the person standing next to you. A school like ECS promotes such a culture.
But the circumstances are not favorable. It used to be that the government legislated the height of the drinking fountain outside the bathrooms, now the government claims authority over who can go into each bathroom. The government, though, is not the biggest problem. Fear and distraction within the church trump all that is outside. Christians have forgotten the cost of discipleship. Christians have dared anyone to make them think, or read, or pay, or die. Troubling things have happened in the shire, not while we were off fighting wizards and orcs and evil, but while we were watching Netflix.
Friends of ECS, you have given us your evening. A team of servants have worked to give you a feast of tastes and sounds and sights. And yet all of us must give up much more. We must give up our lives and “get down to our work.” Hannibal wanted to beat Rome so badly he took elephants over the Alps in winter. The cause of Christ is greater than that of Carthage, and more difficult.
We work “while the conditions are still unfavourable.” We play soccer during recess on a parking lot, but we are thankful that it’s not on a gravel driveway (like we used to). Our part time teachers do not teach for the money, which is good, because we only have baby carrots to dangle in front of them. Many families want this enculturation for their kids but cannot afford it. We have not turned anyone away for financial reasons yet, but we would like for that to always be true.
We have more things to be thankful for than to complain about. God has already grown great fruit in such a young and tiny orchard. Favorable conditions may never come, but we ask some of you to join us, some others to come further up and further in, and some to be encouraged that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.”
Eat, drink, laugh, learn, and give heartily as for the Lord and not for men even without favorable conditions.
Mine will be a personal talk and there are a few reasons for it. It will be personal because I am a fiction amateur. I read fiction now because I love it, which is what being an amateur used to mean (from Latin amator meaning “lover”). I do not get, nor have I ever been, paid to read or write or teach about fiction. I don’t have a degree in literature or intentions to pursue one. I read to my kids, I read as an auditor in our school’s Omnibus class, and I read on my treadmill for fun. I read fiction out of enthusiasm not due to employment.
This also will be a personal talk because I am a fiction noob, an inexperienced and possibly incompetent student of fiction. I have only been a lover of fiction for at most three years, and considered over my lifetime reading fiction has only played a meaningful part during the last five years. A Vegas bookie would offer a generous over-under to say that I’ve read 50 fiction books more than 50 pages long. Teachers assigned me more than that, and I suppose there is irony in my ability to write fictional answers to all the non-fiction comprehension questions those teachers posed.
So I love it but I am new to it. And the last reason I’ll give for why this is a personal talk is that I am a recovering fiction hater. I despised it like a mime despises small talk. I am an unlikely covert because I didn’t merely believe that all fiction was worthless, I believed that all fiction dishonored God. It was a waste of time and resources best spent on reading the Bible and making disciples of the nations. Even more than that, it was a distraction from truth, from worship, from God Himself.
But I was wrong. I was the one dishonoring God. I will go so far as to say that my hatred of fiction, and the convictions that I used to justify it, were sinful. Mine is a personal testimony of a fiction hater who repented.
I could wear this quote from C. S. Lewis like a man of letters jacket.
Because I resisted so intensely and accepted fiction into my heart so recently, I can’t wait to pay years’ worth of lost tribute in thanks to God for the gift of fiction.
What I have to offer is a sort of, I hope, “helpful unprofessionalism” on the subject. In fact, because I’m not an authority on fiction perhaps that means that I’m in a good spot to submit to it. I don’t have to say good things about fiction for my job. If anything, I risk alienation from my own pastoral guild by even caring about such a festival.
Why a Testimony?
Christians appreciate testimonies as fire appreciates oxygen; we feed on them. Each one of us can tell the story of how God saved us as we recount what our life was like before He caused us to be born again and how He’s grown us in Christlikeness since. God often uses a testimony to encourage His people and sometimes even to prod an unbeliever to see his own similar need.
I am not saying that fiction is a gospel or that I wasn’t saved until I started appreciating fiction. I’m noting God’s pleasure in using personal stories to raise the flag of His goodness.
I’d like to think that my testimony will, first, challenge fiction fussers to stop their fussing. I’m an argument from the greater to the lesser: if God can cause me to change my mind then it shouldn’t be harder for Him to nudge a doubter through the library door. If someone produces a show called “Behind the Bookshelf” someday, I would be a good candidate for the first fool-to-fiction episode. Besides, many Christians seem to think that more problems makes for a more dramatic narrative arc. Let me tell you, I’ve got problems.
Not everyone shares my issues, and aren’t you glad? So a second reason for a testimony like this is to encourage those who have friends that are fiction fussers that it is possible for the hate to stop. Is it one of your children? Do you have students who struggle to appreciate the gifts you’re trying to give them?
Repentance, or Why I Was Wrong to Hate
I don’t want to criticize bad fiction as much as I want to criticize those who won’t read fiction for fear that it all is bad. I want to criticize former me (and maybe present-day you).
Why did I hate fiction? How did I defend my hate? I can look back on two stages of my hatred, an immature stage of ignorance and then a better informed, more mature stage of ignorance. The defenses for both stages were different and both were problematic. An autopsy on the former fiction hater may help others to see and subdue their own excuses.
When I was a child, I read as a child, or at least I read like a boy who preferred to hold any type of ball over any type of book. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. We had books at home. My mom took my sister and I to the county library almost every week during summer breaks. My mom had been a high-school English literature and drama teacher before I came along, so one might think that I had narrative in my blood. But I resisted sitting still and I suppose my inner contrarian took pleasure in resisting whatever good things people put before me. While there is nothing wrong with shooting hoops and hitting wiffle balls–activities my nine year-old son also enjoys–I was lazy.
Only if it was raining and the car was in the garage and I couldn’t come up with any new ways to annoy my sister, would I read chapters of Encyclopedia Brown and The Mad Scientist’s Club, along with another detective series about a boy named McGurk. Otherwise I preferred that my entertainment take the least amount of mental effort. I defended myself by claiming that I was just a kid, I was a boy, I was an athlete. Really I was a sluggard. And I missed out.
I kept up this game through high school. The only assigned book I remember reading in its entirety was The Lord of the Flies. I must have read more because they did finally award me the highest order of hall pass: a diploma. During my freshman year of college I switched after one semester to Milligan College which required a 24 credit Humanities course, eight hours a semester for the first four semesters. Here was just one of the essay questions on the final exam.
Goethe, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, and Melville are sitting at a round-table discussion. The three latter each offer their opinions of Goethe’s Promethean character, Faust, and recommend improvements in the character and/or story. Goethe responds to each in turn. Provide a transcript of the conversation.
I knew enough to know that I was going to need to transfer again to get out of taking this course.
Something positive was about to happen, though. That summer between my freshman and sophomore years I became a Calvinist. A new light shone on all my studies and, for the first time (in forever), now I wanted to read. Alas, I only wanted to read books about the Bible and theology. I wanted true books, the ones that would help me know God better. Because I was studying to be a pastor, stories were only as good as they were potential sermon illustrations and, in my circles, the shorter the illustration the better. After all, a preacher ought not draw attention away from the truth.
I believed that what mattered most, if not what mattered only, were spiritual things. Paul said not to set one’s mind on the things of earth but instead on the things of heaven (Colossians 3:1-2). He said don’t get entangled in the affairs of this life as a soldier of Christ (2 Timothy 2:4). He urged Timothy to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2), not novels, and told the Corinthians that the wisdom of the world was nothing compared to preaching the gospel. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
At this point in my life I wasn’t being lazy. I wasn’t trying to avoid books or using my brain. But now I was a dualist. I believed that God cared about celestial things more than bodily, earthly ones. I railed from my heart through my mouth against immature believers who didn’t grasp the priority of truth and the urgency for us to know it and explain it to others. Truth comes in propositions, not epic Greek poems. Truth advances in formulas, not fables. Truth demands clarity, not creativity. Truth may by mysterious but it is not mythical. Truth is, above all, non-fiction.
But I was wrong. That’s not to say that truth is imaginary, but good fiction can and does carry truth. I made false divisions and, what’s worse, I asserted untrue propositions in doing so. I was lying about truth, cropping the truth to my preferred, more comfortable, and more personally benefitting forms, the ones that made me seem more spiritual.
Both my childish laziness and developed dualism were image-bearing problems. That’s why the target audience of this festival is anyone fussy enough to complain about reading fiction.
Stages of Restoration
Maybe you’ve been standing on the side of the pool and need someone to tell you that the water is warm. Jump in. What helped to show me the errors in my hatred of fiction? There are five ingredients that God used to bless me into good fiction as He restores His image in me. They are sort of in order with overlap on the timeline.
First, I got married and we had kids. When Mo and I met and got engaged she was appalled that I hadn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She encouraged me to read it, which I did, but didn’t get past the first chapter in Price Caspian. A few years later God gave us Maggie and that raised questions about raising her, especially what sort of education we wanted to give her. Mo’s parents homeschooled her, Mo loved it, and at the time I was glad to delegate all of that to her. But the questions kept coming up though I hadn’t come to answers yet.
Second, I started to study and teach Genesis. I was a youth pastor at a church where the New Testament was 95% of the Sunday sermon diet as well as the staple for home Bible studies. I was more comfortable with epistles, but believed that some Old Testament study would benefit the youth and challenge me to expand my arsenal. I had no idea.
In the first chapter of Genesis the Bible confronted me with God’s gladness in stuff. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). The non-spiritual things are His idea. Out of all the ways that He could have communicated His glory and reveal what He liked, He chose dirt and then made man from it to work it.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
He created and then He created mini-creators, image-bearers. Men and women are made in His image to reflect His likeness which means among other things that we were made to make. Dorothy Sayers summarized it this way in her book, The Mind of the Maker:
[W]hen we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.
The cultural mandate, if you’re okay calling it that, included science and technology and art. By chapter four of Genesis we see music and instruments and gangster rap poetry from Lamech. All of this started to step on the toes of my dualism, and it hurt in a good way. Then I came across Tolkien’s idea of sub-creators.
Although now long estranged, Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned: Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons- ’twas our right (used or misused). That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we’re made.
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. (Tolkien on Fairy-stories)
Not only are story-makers allowable, they are necessary. Writing, and by good and reasonable implication, reading, are ways that men truthfully emulate God. Characters, plot, battle, love, loss, battle, magic, return, these are all God’s narrative devices and good fiction imitates His patterns. The Bible says so.
Third, I drank the classical education Kool-aid. About this time our oldest daughter had started school at home and we were trying this thing called the “classical” model. Mo had given me a book or two to read about it. I read The Lost Tools of Learning and wrote some of the nastiest comments in the margins. Because I wanted to be an involved dad, I kept reading. After the first couple years the curriculum for all the classes got harder, and then both Mo and I realized that we needed a school to help us.
We found Providence Classical and Christian School in Lynnwood the same year that our son Calvin started Kindergarten. We loved Providence and I kept seeing the benefit of books, even fiction ones, for shaping thinking and worldview and loyalties. By this time we had started a church and wanted this sort of exposure and enculturation for more than just our family. So we started thinking about starting a school in Marysville. That meant even more reading, more thinking about why and what we wanted for students and their families. It meant most asking what we as parents wanted to get first for ourselves so that we could give it to our kids and the next generations.
Fourth, I was bit by the Abraham Kuyper bug. His oft-quoted comment about Christ’s lordship over every thumb’s-width in the universe fit with Genesis and confirmed that my dualism dishonored God’s Son. It also affirmed the classical and Christian model of education. Kuyper didn’t write fiction himself but his testimony of salvation credits a Victorian novel, The Heir of Redclyffe, as a key in his conversion. His eagerness for men and women and children to use all of the world as a way to honor Christ applies to good stories.
Fifth, I tasted the sweetness of fiction itself. I started to read it. I read the Narnia series to my kids and I liked it. I wanted to sail with Reepicheep to the end of the world on the Silver Sea into Aslan’s Country. I saw too much of myself in Eustace Scrub, fussy and unfamiliar with the right sort of books. I read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I read the 100 Cupboards series by Nate Wilson to the kids and loved it. Our school mascot is, after all, the raggant.
I read Omnibus books along with the first three secondary students like The Odyssey and now in year four The Iliad. We read how Virgil gave real meaning (through a mostly made-up story) to Rome in The Aeneid and how the right kind of laughter makes Grendel and his mother furious in Beowulf.
Nate Wilson encouraged me to read Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Specifically he said that That Hideous Strength was without question the greatest English novel. I couldn’t imagine stomaching science fiction but he said that skipping the first two books was for cheaters. Not only did I read them, not only do I agree with his assessment, but the power of the categories Lewis gives in THS have shaped my thoughts on peer pressure, dualism, the dangers of human “progress” without God, ironic acronyms, Aurthurian legend, and Merlin’s magic. It even made me want to drink tea.
A Luxury I Can’t Live Without
Not every fiction book that I’ve read has been so much fire in my belly. But I have tasted and seen that good fiction is good. I would even say that over the last few years during times in between fiction readings, I’ve felt malnourished. I would say that I need it like food.
Growth requires food. Multiple times every day, throughout my entire childhood, I was fed. How many specific meals do I remember? How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do I remember uniquely as distinct from all the others? I remember meals in the same way that I remember story times. The atmosphere and aura of feeding—-goblets and goblins, milk and villains, ice cream and orcs. I was fed. I grew. Inside and out. We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment—-narrative catechisms. (Death by Living, 11)
Good fiction puts flesh on the skeleton of the past. It makes names, dates, and places warm. This is a specialty of our keynote speaker. For example, I’ve appreciated John Calvin for more than twenty years. I’ve read books by him and biographies about him. Mo and I named our son after him. But this summer I read The Betrayal which colored a unique hue on Calvin’s life that made his life more vibrant.
The Illiad shows rather than defines a worldview where glory-seekers and shame-haters will kill. It also should make us glad that the true God doesn’t have a sulking daughter forever complaining and manipulating. A Tale of Two Cities and Macbeth exhibit the senseless self-destructive nature of revolution and revenge. Uncle Tom’s Cabin may play too much on the reader’s emotions, but how we deal with others must not be unemotional.
Good fiction also puts perspective on the present. It lets you look at yourself as from a telescope rather than a mirror on the cool side of the car sun visor. The Inferno may not paint even one accurate stroke about hell except that hell is just and it is bad. We do well to realize that we get what we deserve apart from God’s grace. Likewise, The Screwtape Letters may not even be close to the way principalities and powers and rulers and authorities communicate. Everyone knows they text message these days. But how it is not gives us insight into the temptations and battles we are in. And the general liturgical value of reading stories reminds us that we are all characters in a bigger story. We are being read. What do the critics think about us?
Finally, good fiction puts gas in the tank as we fight into the future. One of the best parts about a book is the final page. If we enjoyed the book we may not be glad that it’s over. But we often need the encouragement that the story will be over someday. Life is not a movie. The valley and the climax doesn’t resolve in two hours, or even in the 15-20 hours of reading a Russian novel. But the positive part reminds runners to run for the prize, kids to make and pursue goals, soldiers to fight for victory, disciples to be with Him where He is.
Fiction also expands our imaginations for sake of holiness. The Bible provides much clarity on do’s and don’ts. But sometimes we encounter new situations. Wisdom is more than being able to regurgitate facts on command. Wisdom is being able to anticipate and see what the proper response would be.
1984 (which, by the way, I’d love to contrast with That Hideous Strength if we do this festival again next year), written in the future to Orwell’s first readers, is still a scary prophecy of the kinds of tyranny we vote over ourselves. The Ashtown Burials series gives confidence that spending your life to death will bring life. I love watching characters battle the criticism and pain. There are true stories, biographies, that encourage us to be unbroken, but so do hobbits coming back to the Shire who won’t accept the new way.
As Sam Gamgee said, “No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead. I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there’s work and trouble ahead.”
Bringing Good Things to Life
We have too many non-fiction problems not to read fiction.
What then is the good of—-what is even the defense for—-occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person?
The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology….We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out”. (Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 1961, 137-138)
The name of this organized celebration is the Raggant Fiction Festival. The raggant is an animal that doesn’t exist and yet he does. We want to bring him to life, but differently than Pinocchio. We want more than a graduating class of raggants, we want generations of them. N.D. characterized the raggant as a creature with one sense who interprets everything in the world through that sense. It’s what fired up Jonathan to see the analogy with classical Christian education in which we equip students to interpret all of life through the grid of Jesus Christ as Lord. It is a make-believe creature that we believe is worth making.
Thanks for being here to celebrate, or at least to consider why Christians should be the least fussy people, about non-fiction and fiction. Maybe you’ve been given reason to repent, or hope, or to grow bigger than you were when the story started.