American Civil (lr)religion and Christian Peoplehood: Education and the Intuition of Membership

In recent years, there has been a widespread recovery of an awareness that education (like discipleship) is a process of formation that addresses the imagination and the affections. This process involves embodied practices (“liturgies”) within communities that have speci c moral and theological horizons. Because children are likely to be malformed by many conventional practices in contemporary nihilistic society, their guardians (i.e., parents, teachers, and clergy) need to be more diligent and deliberate in enculturating them: conveying to them a way of life tting for who they are. Leaders in Christian schools often sense that they are more attentive to the challenges of formation than are many parents and clergy. In this workshop, Ken Myers will argue that one reason that families, schools, and churches seem to be working at cross- purposes is because of a low view of the Church, her role in the project of redemption, and her identity in the world. He will suggest ways in which non-denominational schools can keep the “Church” in “parachurch,” encouraging a more emphatic recognition of participation in the culture of the people of God.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by historic Christian thought and practice. He was formerly the editor of This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. A graduate of the University of Maryland and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Mr. Myers is the author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books, 1989). He has wri en for numerous periodicals, including The Wilson Quarterly, Discipleship Journal, and First Things. He writes a regular column in Touchstone magazine called “From Heavenly Harmony,” has served on several evaluation panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, and lectures frequently at colleges, universities, seminaries, and churches around the country.

Whose Rationality? Classical Christian Education and the Ordering of Faith and Reason

The reform of education embodied in the classical Christian school movement represents a challenge to Enlightenment assumptions about the nature and ends of reason and about the scope and consequences of religious belief. But the terms and ramifiations of this conflict are not always clearly understood. Moreover, much contemporary Christian discipleship and apologetics (perhaps unwittingly) reinforces Enlightenment pre-suppositions more than the classical Christian understanding. In this workshop, Ken Myers will discuss how a more deliberately Christocentric account of reason ought to inform the shape of teaching in Christian schools.

Ken Myers

As host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal since 1992, Ken Myers has interviewed hundreds of authors of books that contribute to understanding the challenges faced by Christians in modernity. A frequent speaker at classical Christian schools (and at SCL conferences), Myers has applied the wisdom from those interviews to the challenge of enculturating the next generation of believers. A graduate of the University of Maryland (BA in Communications) and Westminster Theological Seminary (MAR in theological studies), Myers’s early career as an arts and humanities editor at National Public Radio stimulated his lifelong interest in discovering how contemporary culture took the form it now has, and how the consequences of the Gospel require Christians to embody countercultural alternatives.

Being Christian in Public: Lessons from St. Paul in Athens (and elsewhere)

Sociologist Christian Smith has observed that the religious lives of most American teens express what he calls “moralistic therapeutic Deism.” Even many church-going, professing Christians seem incapable of explaining their faith in terms that go beyond an upbeat greeting- card faith. But many critics who lament this sad state of affairs nonetheless assume a minimal religiosity when they enumerate the public consequences of faith. In public, we all have to be Deists. Relying on St. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, Ken Myers will argue that we can and should be more thoroughly Christian in our public presence, and describe how education can prepare our children for faithful public witness in a deliberately post-Christian society.

Ken Myers

As host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal since 1992, Ken Myers has interviewed hundreds of authors of books that contribute to understanding the challenges faced by Christians in modernity. A frequent speaker at classical Christian schools (and at SCL conferences), Myers has applied the wisdom from those interviews to the challenge of enculturating the next generation of believers. A graduate of the University of Maryland (BA in Communications) and Westminster Theological Seminary (MAR in theological studies), Myers’s early career as an arts and humanities editor at National Public Radio stimulated his lifelong interest in discovering how contemporary culture took the form it now has, and how the consequences of the Gospel require Christians to embody countercultural alternatives.

Rejecting the Magician’s Bargain

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis argued that the project of modern science “was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.” While there have been some scientists, philosophers, and theologians who have thoughtfully reconsidered the foundations of modern science, many Christians assume that modern science is the innocent offspring of a purely Christian worldview. Ken Myers explains why that’s not an accurate account, and explores what repentance might look like.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by Christian conviction. He was formerly the editor of This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, a quarterly journal whose editor-in-chief was Richard John Neuhaus. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Mr. Myers serves as an advisory editor for Christianity Today, and his published writings include All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books: 1989), and (as editor) Aspiring to Freedom: Commentaries on John Paul II’s Encyclical “The Social Concerns of the Church” (William B. Eerdmans: 1988). He has also wri en for numerous periodicals. He has served on the Arts on Radio and Television Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and he lectures frequently at colleges, universities, and churches around the country. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where he studied lm theory and criticism, and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his wife Kate have a large garden, a cat, a dog, two children, and they live in the country, north of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or, What Do We Mean by “Meaning?”

In recent years, Christian educators have become more aware of the fundamental role of the body and of the imagination in the acquisition of knowledge. Teachers and administrators are increasingly recognizing the mistake — embedded and celebrated in modern culture — that ideas can be reduced to abstract information. Because human beings are not “brains in vats,” but created to know the world as embodied, intuitive, imaginative beings, knowledge is not simply data. Teaching and learning are thus more like a dance than a data transfer protocol.

We are none of us simple blank slates. We each receive knowledge into the context of what we already know and what we imagine to be the case. The rhetorician and intellectual historian Richard Weaver used the term “metaphysical dream of the world” to describe the “intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality” that informs all human thought.1 Weaver’s use
of the term “dream” suggests that what we commonly call “worldview” should be recognized as more than a simple checklist of doctrines and their consequences. The perception of reality and the wise apprehension of what is true about reality has a character that is more like a story than a formula, equation, or algorithm. Acquiring knowledge is the act of amending the story about reality that we carry with us — a story that orders our assumptions about what is and what might be — with new details: characters, settings, events, expectations, patterns of resonance.

But a memorable story, a story that haunts our imagination and shapes our dreams, is more than a collection of such details. It is in the form of the telling, not just the content of what is told, that stories sustain coherence. Good storytellers, good journalists, even good comedians, know that the timing and texture of the story — pauses, inflection, repetition of certain details, the careful selection of le mot juste — is essential to the story’s success. In stories, form is the fount of meaning. But not just in stories.

While some will insist that anything that can’t be set down in words can’t be knowledge, the testimony of the Psalms clearly refutes such a claim. As in all poetry, the Psalms present meaning in the concreteness of metaphor, whereby some aspect of the physical world — the world known to us immediately by the senses — is likened to some reality that is more than matter.

Consider the opening verses of Psalm 91:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

The meaning of the text is in the metaphors and their unstated, connotative, associative power, a power which is ignited as we imagine ourselves in the embodied settings the metaphors describe. And beyond the meaning in the metaphors lies a meaning in the poetic structure, especially the confident rhythm of those couplets. In verses 5 and 6, we experience night and
day, night and day, threatened by arrows and pestilence and wasting destruction at all hours. Would God have communicated with us more efficiently if he hadn’t relied on so many metaphors? Is our acquisition of knowledge and understanding hampered because the form this revelation takes is so vividly tied to concrete experience, rather than the safe, lawyerly language of theological abstraction? There are those who seem to believe so, and since the Enlightenment — that cultural movement intent on securing knowledge that could liberate us from all shackles — their number has been thicker on the ground, so to speak. Consider this counsel from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[I]n Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments [as metaphors, similes and the like] . . . can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore, however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth and Knowledge are concerned cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or the Person that makes use of them.2

If I read this correctly, “Things as they are” are best understood without figurative language. By contrast, the Psalmist (in Psalm 19) seems to be asserting that the biggest “Thing as it is” can be known in the wordless speech of Creation received through all the senses:

  1. 1  The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

  2. 2  Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.

  3. 3  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.

  4. 4  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Derek Kidner suggests that the sense of the paradox of wordless speech described here might be better conveyed if we insert the word “Yet” at the beginning of verse 4. There is no speech, no words, no voice, yet their cry, their utterance, their knowledge, is universally disseminated.
Poet Joseph Addison (1672-1719) captures the paradox of wordless speech in the third stanza of “The Spacious Firmament on High,” when he marvels:

What though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball? What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found? In reason’s ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice; for ever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

The sensory experience we enjoy of Creation conveys real knowledge about the Creator. Creation, without words or propositional speech, is meaningful. As with stories, the form of Creation — especially, in this case, the experience of what we call “radiance” — is the fount of its meaning.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christians, like most post-Enlightenment people, tend to assume that form and content are easily and conveniently separable, and that the form with which content is expressed is not itself meaningful. According to conventional wisdom, forms serve the same role as wrapping paper, a decorative garnish, or a spoonful of sugar in dispensing medication. The form of expression may make the content more attractive or desirable, but it does not convey any meaning in and of itself.

Pastor Rick Warren typifies this assumption when he counsels church leaders: “Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.”3 Any music with words that present Christian ideas or sentiments (or even vaguely pious words capable of being interpreted in accordance with Christian teaching) is automatically Christian music, and thus apparently liturgically appropriate. Words are the only vehicle of meaning that Christians need to worry about. Anything worthy of the label “knowledge” is conveyed in words and only in words.

D. C. Schindler has characterized such assaults on the meaningfulness of poetic expression as an expression of an “iconoclasm of the intellect,” a formative feature of early modernity whose consequences are still much with us. The images torn down and smashed in this crusade are the experiences of the senses, which even in the Platonic conception, Schindler argues, were assumed to be “intelligible content, in a spatial and temporal mode.“ While modernity assumes that the physical world is meaningless matter — and the life of the senses thus has no intrinsic connection with Truth — the Platonic and subsequent Christian assumption was that the physical world was “nothing but meaning made tangible” (or, the case of art and music, meaning made visible and audible). Whether received immediately by the senses or echoed in metaphoric speech, the perception of reality through the body by what would later be called the imagination was the source of meaning. Schindler insists that a recovery of a Christian understanding and implementation of imagination is essential to the recovery of a Christian understanding of truth:

The imagination is, if not the center of the human being, then nevertheless that without which there can be no center, for it marks the point of convergence at which the soul and body meet; it is the place where faith in the incarnate God becomes itself incarnate and therefore truly becomes faith; it is — pace Hegel — where reason becomes concrete, and the bodily life of the senses rises to meet the spirit. It lies more deeply than the sphere of our discrete thoughts and choices because it is the ordered space within which we in fact think and choose. Far more than a mere faculty, the Christian imagination is a way of life, and this is because we might say it represents the point of intersection between Christianity and the world.4

Discipleship (that enterprise of which education is a subset) can be seen as the forming of a Christian imagination, the training of the believer’s facility and agility in imagining the world rightly, thus to seek to resonate sympathetically with the order of Creation. Whether we use the vocabulary of loves and affections, imagination, or of taste, the effect is the same. Discipleship involves
the training of intuitive and subjective responses. C. S. Lewis captured this understanding near the beginning of his great treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, when he explained that, in classical and premodern Christian thought it was assumed that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”5

In many Christian circles, discussion of the meaningfulness of form is all too rare. Forms are discussed in terms of popularity, as meaningless vehicles or containers for the content of conceptual knowledge. Or they are regarded only as motivational devices — usually carrots rather than sticks — employed to stimulate enthusiasm about certain truth claims or certain moral commitments.

But to say that the only kind of knowledge Christians should be concerned with is abstract, analytic, conceptual knowledge is to treat human beings more like angels or computers. Brains with no bodies, no loves, no qualities.

Meaning (and hence knowledge) is much bigger than verbal content. Flowers left by a bedside in a hospital are meaningful, as is a cross burned in someone’s front yard. A child running to greet her father returning home will mean something different from a child sitting coolly on a porch-step until he arrives. Eye contact or the lack of it can be meaningful. The presence of a friend means something different from a text message, and a gift carefully wrapped and hand-delivered means something different from a gift card left anonymously on a desk.

Words rationally perceived are necessary for stating and defending truth, and Christians do care about truth. But we care for more than truth. We care about realities that can only be partially described by words: about joy and sorrow, hope and frustration, fidelity and fear, love and justice. All of these abstractions are known by us as embodied creatures, living in space and time. Sorrow or fear or hope are not abstractions when you experience them.

The meaning of the realities with which Christians are concerned — which is pretty much all of human experience in its relationship with God and with Creation — cannot be adequately described through coldly analytical declarations, definitions, and argument. God knows this better than we do, which is why when God reveals himself to us, reveals who He is and what He is doing in the world, He does so in the concrete realities of Creation — the Heavens and the mountains and the seas and ants and trees and marriage — as well as in inspired stories and poetry, metaphors and imagery, parables and hymns, letters and visions. The Bible does not arrive as systematic theology and isn’t given to us just to create jobs for systematic theologians who, once they complete their work, can get rid of all of the imagery and messiness and fuzziness of the Bible. The Bible is given in forms that are to form our own lives, and it does that by capturing our imagination as well as engaging our analytic reason. In fact our imagination has to be involved before our reason can do its work.

Forms are meaningful in part because we live our lives in the form of our bodies. When we are burdened, we bend; when we express deference we lower our heads and our eyes; when we are excited our hearts race at a faster rhythm. When we strive to be attentive, or when we are pensive, we slow down, sometimes to stillness.

Not only do our bodies form our experience; our inner lives also have a form. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) developed a theory of art that challenged the radical dualism between content and form, and thus between objective and subjective. In her anthology Problems of Art Langer argued that “subjective existence has a structure; it . . . can be conceptually known, reflected on, imagined and symbolically expressed in detail and to a great depth. Only it is not our usual medium, discourse — communication by language — that serves to express what we know of the life of feeling. . . . [W]hat language does not readily do — present the nature and patterns of sensitive and emotional life — is done by works of art. Such works are expressive forms, and what they express is the nature of human feeling.”

As Langer describes the formal depiction of inner life, she quotes a psychologist who has been trained in music who said, “‘Music sounds as feelings feel.’ And likewise in good painting, sculpture, or building, balanced shapes and colors, lines and masses, look as emotions, vital tensions and their resolutions feel.” This does not mean that we need to translate a painting or a sonata into words, into discursive concepts in order for the work of art to do its work. “A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one’s thought passes on to the concept symbolized. The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.”

This binding together of form and content is not unique to works of art. All transmission of knowledge — by the Heavens, by storytellers, even by humble teachers — relies on the situatedness of embodied knowers. We and our students are not “brains in vats”, not computers, not disembodied spirits. Our lives have meaningful form, and thus the form we give to the knowledge we share will take some form. The challenge to thoughtful teachers is to appropriate the form that is most fitting.

Cultivating Aural Hygiene: The Challenge of Attentive Listening in a Noisy World

In recent years, a lot of attention has been given to the ways in which communications technologies have nurtured a spirit of distraction that affects reading and reasoning habits. Ken Myers will examine how technologies similarly disable our ability to listen well, and how we can fight back, individually and corporately.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by Christian conviction. He was formerly the editor of This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, a quarterly journal whose editor-in-chief was Richard John Neuhaus. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Mr. Myers serves as an advisory editor for Christianity Today, and his published writings include All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books: 1989), and (as editor) Aspiring to Freedom: Commentaries on John Paul II’s Encyclical “The Social Concerns of the Church” (William B. Eerdmans: 1988). He has also wri en for numerous periodicals. He has served on the Arts on Radio and Television Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and he lectures frequently at colleges, universities, and churches around the country. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where he studied lm theory and criticism, and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his wife Kate have a large garden, a cat, a dog, two children, and they live in the country, north of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Education and the Recovery of the Non-Modern Mind

The movement to recover the insights of classical pedagogy is one of the most encouraging cultural phenomena of our time. While many parents may choose classical schools because they provide a wholesome moral environment and seem to equip students well to take standardized tests, teachers and administrators realize that there is something much deeper at stake in this approach to education.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith asserts that “Behind every constellation of educational practices is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons — about the kinds of creatures we are.” Pedagogy reveals anthropology. But we can extend Smith’s observation further: educational institutions (the structure of curriculum, the form of classroom practice, the expectations and training of teachers, even the design of buildings) reveal a lot about our understanding of the nature of the cosmos — about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach — how we approach the conveying of knowledge — is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.

The assumptions that typically animate the lives of most of our contemporaries are a product of living in what we carelessly (and sometimes arrogantly) call “the modern world.” The whole world may not be as modern as this phrase suggests. But it is accurate to say that we live in a society that is shaped by assumptions properly distinguished as “modern.” To be modern is not just to be up-to-date; it is to care deeply about being up-to-date. Michael Gillespie has observed that “to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time.”

Contemporary Christians who are serious about their faith necessarily struggle (sometimes without understanding the nature of the struggle) with the conflict between being fully Christian and being fully modern. Many Christians — failing to understand the consequences of being fully modern — believe that there must be a way to reconcile being a modern Christian. But surely we must be people who define ourselves in terms of our God, not in terms of time.

The preoccupation with being new that defines the modern goes hand in hand with a radical view of freedom. The modern mentality or posture (words more descriptive than worldview in this context) eagerly anticipates the new, often at the expense of traditions and in denial of claims of “permanent things.” To be modern, writes Gillespie, “is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition, but to make history.”

Christians affirm that our God is the Lord of history and the Maker of meaning. The modern mentality, by contrast, asserts that meaning is whatever we want it to be, and history is no more than the sum total of projects generated by sheer human willing. There is a stark and consequential contrast between belief in a cosmos ordered and given meaning by God and a universe devoid of meaning — a mass of raw material awaiting human ingenuity to confer purpose. That contrast is at the heart of C. S. Lewis’s most important book, The Abolition of Man — a book about two models of education and the radically different visions of human nature and cosmic order they represent. Near the end of the book he contrasts the ancient way of wisdom as seeking “how to conform the soul to reality,” and the modern preoccupation — sustained by
an obsession to technological advances — with “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

In insisting on a conflict between a Christian mentality and a modern one, I may be criticized by some for “wanting to turn the clock back.” But what assumptions are embedded in that metaphor? An inexorable and demanding clock is not a neutral image adequate to adjudicate the conflict between the modern mentality and its critics.

Fear of being behind the times is a valid fear only if one is preoccupied with being new and up-to-date. This is a posture that presupposes the non-existence of permanent and timeless realities by which our lives might be ordered. I’ve adopted “non-modern” as a term to describe the character of the Christian mind, rather than anti-modern, post-modern or pre-modern. These latter terms have their uses, but they tend to reinforce that biased temporal metaphor.

Can we imagine the contrast between the Modern and Non-modern spatially rather than temporally? Think of a land (rather than an era) in which, by habit, citizens glibly forget the past and compulsively hatch plans for A Better Future, a land in which people move with aggressive speed and confidence, despite the sense that they have no idea where they are going. In the neighboring land, by habit, the residents evaluate their actions in accord with a beautiful pattern of meaning known by their ancestors and conveyed to their children, a land in which past, present, and future are understood in terms of fulfillment rather than displacement and disposal.

Christians in modern societies need to think of themselves and their children as aliens from one land living in another, not as people pining for a lost past. The recovery of a non-modern mentality may be difficult, but it is not improper (unless one is already biased in favor of the modern mentality).

The difference between the modern and the non- modern concerns more than how we situate ourselves in time. More fundamentally it involves questions of how to live well. Music historian Quentin Faulkner has summarized two different mentalities that answer in radically different ways the question of how to live a good and meaningful life. According to one view:

An inherently mysterious, awesome power has created me to be part of the world, a world I can never hope to understand or control. Following the teachings or laws revealed to my people will enable me to remain pleasing to that creating force and at one with my family and tribe, and thus will provide my life with meaning because it is integrated with theirs. Following the teachings or laws requires me to fulfill certain duties and obligations, and I am fulfilled in doing these the best I can. Indeed I am compelled to do them: since living is an everlasting struggle between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, growth and decay, unfaithfulness to my duties and obligations will lead to my destruction.

The second view situates individuals quite differently:

I am significant because it is a matter of common knowledge and observation that our species is superior and in control on this planet. The democratic ideal guarantees me freedom and the right to pursue my happiness. Therefore I am free to follow my own personal goals and to pursue comfort, satisfaction and personal pleasure. That which I do not now understand about the universe will eventually be explained by science, so that things which now seem mysterious will ultimately be provided with rational explanations. I am not compelled to be faithful to any higher order of existence, since there is none.

The first of these views fits the non-modern mentality quite well. It is communal, it affirms permanent realities that guide personal and corporate decisions, it recognizes the smallness of human efforts to achieve comprehensive knowledge, and it is essentially humble and reverent in the face of mystery. The second view bows before nothing (hence my preference for posture over worldview in this discussion), it enshrines the isolated, autonomous individual and can imagine no limits, it values knowledge for the sake of power and control, not for the savoring of wisdom, it knows no duties or obligations. This paragraph offers a good summary of the ethos embedded in all truly modern institutions — including modern education. The falseness of this mentality prevents modern educational structures from fulfilling aims of education that are humane and liberal in the best sense.

More than differing about explicit moral or religious matters, the modern and the non-modern mentalities disagree about the very nature of reality. C. S. Lewis makes this quite clear near the beginning of The Abolition of Man when he talks about the loss of belief in “objective value.” This phrase may cause some to stumble because the vocabulary of “values” has become so thoroughly subjective in our time. Lewis held the venerable if now unfashionable belief that some things are truly, really valuable, objectively worthy of valuing, “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” The universe has a givenness to it, human nature — including the purpose of human existence — has a givenness to it, and the challenge of living well is to learn to honor that givenness in our hearts as well as our heads.

Education is thus the training of the affections, the moral imagination, the mind, the intuitions, even the bodily disciplines of young people to be in synch, in harmony with that givenness. As Luigi Giussani has summarized it, “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” To educate is to train in the essential task of giving form to objective value: education involves the imparting of habits of mind and body that incarnate the true value of things. Our lives must have some shape to them; our convictions will take form in personal habits and practices, as well as in public institutions and artifacts. And the task of education — understood classically and by Christians not under the sway of modern assumptions (what people in that other land believe) — is to train the young in how to give form to value.

If I had to isolate a single priority for Christians in educating their children, it would be to convey to them a deep and abiding confidence that there is a givenness to the universe and to human nature, a confidence that is the foundation of ordered desire to spend one’s life learning to fit into that givenness. The classical model of education — as opposed to modern models — is a great boon to Christians precisely because it assumes a prescriptive understanding of human nature and the cosmos. It assumes that human beings, individually and socially, have an objective purpose that calls us to certain ways of life. Education is vocational, not principally in the sense of career training, but in the root sense of vocation: that God has called humanity to a purpose rooted in divine love and truth, a vocation that fits us for life in a world God has made with our flourishing in view. The pedagogical strategy of classical education establishes and is shaped by an affirmation of this givenness to things, and part of that givenness is the unity of head and heart. Classical thought and Christian thought (before it was contaminated by alien preoccupations) was confident that truth was something to be loved, not just understood analytically. Just as language is a gift enabling loving communication and not just a tool to accomplish practical tasks, so reason is a gift enabling our understanding — a valid if incomplete understanding — of the world, of each other, and of the divine.

James S. Taylor, in his book, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, notes that “An important point of the ancient, classical, medieval tradition on man as knower was the consistent view that it was the whole person who experienced the world — not just the eyes or just the mind, but the composite being, body and soul, man.” This understanding of human nature and human knowing gave rise to the Western model of education in the liberal arts, a model that originated in pre-Christian antiquity and was adapted and deepened by Christians, finally giving rise to the invention of the university.

The end of that knowledge was assumed to be more than the achieving of useful facts. In The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith, philosopher James Peters, confronts “modernity’s unfortunate legacy of a deep and ugly divide between reason and affection.” As he explains, “Despite the legacy of modernity that pervades our lives today, I believe that we can reasonably embrace the following radical claims: first, that the proper function of reason in human life is to enable us truthfully to locate ourselves in our world and to live wisely by recognizing who we are and what our proper place is in this world; and second, that reason cannot function apart from the guidance of the human heart.”

Later in the book, Peters summarizes the Augustinian view of Reason, displaying how stark the contrast is between Augustine’s understanding of rationality and that defended or assumed by most modern thinkers, an understanding which is embedded in many modern institutions, from education to politics to journalism to the arts. Following Augustine, Peters insists that the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and affections needed to put us in touch with — to align us fully with — reality. Assisted by divine charity, the proper function of reason is thus both cognitive and unitive. The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be — persons who are able not only to describe but also to affirm and become united with the God of love.

The methods and goals of modern education — along with the shape of much of modern culture — are rooted in the assumption that reason is a mechanism of heartless technology, just a matter of calculation. Reason has been constricted in modern usage and in modern culture to refer only to those things that can be established by science, by empirical verification. So the matter of cultivating the mind is commonly assumed to be no more than training in mechanical reasoning skills, the sorts of things that computers can do. Since all speech about value and values, about purpose and providence, is assumed to be subjective, personal, and private, it is outside the realm of reason, and hence, not properly within the jurisdiction of educators.

These are all assumptions that most of us need to unlearn if we are striving to be faithful to the givenness of things. Children who have been schooled in the tradition of classical education (along with their parents and teachers) need to be more confident that their education will help them truthfully to locate themselves in the world and thus live wisely.

The structure of teaching in classical Christian schools is rooted in the assumption that the universe has meaning and purpose, that human nature has meaning and purpose, and that reason itself is a capacity that is fulfilled as human beings come to know and honor the objective value present in Creation. The most urgent educative priority of parents is to enable their children to acquire a confidence in the givenness of things, a confidence which I believe classical Christian schools are uniquely equipped to convey. At this time in the history of the world and of the Church, it is crucial that the education of our children be fully Christian; we should pray not simply that our kids will keep their faith, but that they will grow to surpass us in faithfulness and godly maturity, pursuing all of the ramifications of the Kingdom.

Classical School Meets Pop Culture

For most Americans, what we call “popular culture” provides the horizon, the vocabulary, the texture and rhythm of cultural experience. Trying to establish the presence of the permanent things around which classical schooling is ordered often creates a clash of sensibilities more severe than any conflict in content. Ken Myers will offer a framework for understanding this dissonance and offer some suggestions about how to confront the hegemony of fun and fashion.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by Christian conviction. He was formerly the editor of This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, a quarterly journal whose editor-in-chief was Richard John Neuhaus. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Mr. Myers serves as an advisory editor for Christianity Today, and his published writings include All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books: 1989), and (as editor) Aspiring to Freedom: Commentaries on John Paul II’s Encyclical “The Social Concerns of the Church” (William B. Eerdmans: 1988). He has also written for numerous periodicals. He has served on the Arts on Radio and Television Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and he lectures frequently at colleges, universities, and churches around the country. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where he studied film theory and criticism, and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his wife Kate have a large garden, a cat, a dog, two children, and they live in the country, north of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hearing Heavenly Harmonies

In the early 1960s, Flannery O’Connor addressed a group of English teachers concerning the aims and methods
of teaching fiction. She said that she (as a novelist) and the teachers “should be able to find ourselves enjoying a mutual concern, which would be a love of the language and what can be done with it in the interests of dramatic truth.” Having rejected a view of literature which was moralistic or utilitarian, she declared: “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”

O’Connor assumed that the teachers she was addressing were eager that their students not be captive to the prejudices of the modern mind. After all, she knew (as expressed in one of her letters) that “if you live today you breathe in nihilism.” Since the modern mind was disoriented, popular fashions and fads in literature and typical habits of reading were disordered. So the challenge facing the teacher of literature was a great one. “I don’t know whether I am setting the aims of the teacher of English too high or too low when I suggest that it is, partly at least, his business to change the face of the best-seller list.” Teachers could effect such a change by instructing their students to attend to the form of literary works, since “the form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change, and unless the student is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work, except what is extrinsic to it as literature.”

In an essay written at about the same time, O’Connor offered advice for the selection of fiction to be taught in high-school classes. She concluded her brief remarks by anticipating an objection: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

The work of teaching everything, not just literature, is about forming taste, about guiding the loves of students. The modern mind, as Miss O’Connor knew, finds such a task uncongenial. Modern men and women resent the idea that their emotional responses need to be trained, since modern thought has taught us that our instinctive, untrained desires are the most honest, the most sacred part of our being. We have come very far from a Christian, or indeed, a classical anthropology and psychology.

The classical tradition—reaffirmed by the Christian tradition—insists that education is nothing if not the training of the affections. As C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man (his most important book), “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it— believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.” Lewis also noted that St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

It is heartening that a growing number of Christian educators are recovering an understanding for the lost goals of teaching. But there is a great deal of ground to be retaken. The most challenging recovery involves our perception of music. As is well-known among the readers of this journal, music—along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy—was one of the four disciplines included in the quadrivium, the “four ways” which completed the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and which together comprised the seven liberal arts. If you wanted to prepare to study theology and philosophy in a medieval university, you had to study music first. Music was the experience of the numeric realities of the cosmos, in time, through the senses. Even today, people describe music as a way of ordering time, or a way of perceiving the order that is time. One of the manuscripts in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach was a treatise on counterpoint written in 1725 in which the author, Johann Joseph Fux, referred to “art which imitates and perfects nature, but never destroys it.” This idea, first articulated in Aristotle, was one that the very Lutheran Bach also embraced. As Bach scholar Christoph Wolff argues, “For Bach, art lay between the reality of the world—nature—and God, who ordered this reality.” In Bach’s thinking and in his compositional efforts, musical structure—harmonia, in the Latin terminology of the day—ultimately refers to the order of nature and to its divine cause. Or, as one of Bach’s students wrote, “Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origins, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.”

In his biography of Bach, subtitled The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff presents Bach as a musical Newton, as a man consciously committed to discovery of and delight in the ways of God in creation, specifically as those ways could be known in musical form.

Bach believed that there was a perceptible order in the universe, an order that should serve as a model for human making and doing, for art, as well as for science, for our relationships, for law, for agriculture, for politics, and, perhaps most importantly, for the life of the Church. In other words, in this older way of perceiving reality, cultural institutions and forms were not to be arbitrarily or capriciously or willfully engineered and selected, but developed and approved in faithful resonance with the order God has established in the cosmos. The goal of education was to help the student perceive and delight in that order.

But even by Bach’s day, the apparent glimpses of the transcendent in music and in other forms of artistic expression were coming to be regarded by many as wishful thinking—not so much because their view of music was more modest, but because their view of the cosmos was changing. In our time, that transition has long been complete. “Nowadays,” writes Jamie James, “most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but is rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness. The concept of the universe as a random, meaningless place was expressed on the earthly level by the theory of evolution: the mutations that determine the course of life on earth, and indeed the very creation of humankind, were revealed to be largely fortuitous events.”

Since the modern mind denies an underlying cosmic order—denies, that is, that the world is a Creation of a Creator—artistic forms are regarded as arbitrary and capricious expressions of entirely personal imaginations. Any effort by teachers, parents, or church leaders to train the taste—especially musical taste—can only be understood as an unwarranted exercise of power. “Elitism” is the charge commonly leveled at such efforts, since, as music critic Julian Johnson has observed, in our day, “in matters of musical judgment, the individual can be the only authority.”

Christian educators, indeed all Christians , need to examine more critically this assumption of the modern mind. As Johnson explains, the view that musical taste is purely private and subjective is a peculiarly modern assumption.

This is in sharp contrast to the relatively minor status of individual ‘taste’ in Western musical practice and aesthetics from the ancient Greeks until the late eighteenth century. To an earlier age, our contemporary idea of a complete relativism
in musical judgment would have seemed nonsensical. One could no more make valid individual judgments about music than about science. Music was no more ‘a matter of taste’ than was the orbit of the planets or the physiology of the human body. From Plato to Helmholtz, music was understood to be based on natural laws, and its value was derived from its capacity to frame and elaborate these laws in musical form. Its success was no more a matter of subjective judgment than the laws themselves.

Our belief about making judgments about quality in any art form is now captive to what art critic Jed Perl has called “laissez-faire aesthetics,” which, he writes, “has left us with a weakening of all conviction, an unwillingness to take stands, a reluctance to champion, or surrender to, any first principle.” This relativism in aesthetic judgment is simply a part of a larger modern suspicion about all value judgments, a suspicion that has been described by Alasdair MacIntyre and others as “emotivism,” “the doctrine,” as MacIntyre explains, “that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.”

The displacement of many of our society’s artistic standards by the enchantments of entertainment is an indication of cultural decline with a complicated set of causes. Among them is an ever-more radical celebration of the autonomy of the individual self and a hostility toward authority; an increasing suspicion that the past has anything useful or instructive to offer us; a growing impatience with cultural pursuits that are demanding on our time or intellectual effort; an aversion to the idea of cultivation and a celebration of forms of expression that are untutored, instinctual, and allegedly “authentic”; and a fascination with anything “transgressive” coupled with cynicism toward the maintenance of a tradition.

It is the flourishing of these mentalities that has led to “laissez-faire aesthetics,” and to the indifference within our society to the greatest achievements of the Western cultural tradition. In his 2007 commencement address at Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia commented on this forfeiting of artistic opportunities: “I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.”

And it is happening in our churches as well. The Church once assumed a role of cultural leadership, believing that it should set a good example for her neighbors, not just in morality and theology, but in forms of aesthetic expression: in architecture, in poetry, in art, and in music. Today, it is a rare congregation in America that assumes that responsibility.

This negligence has very sad consequences for the Church’s testimony. If we add momentum to the prevailing assumption in our culture that our engagement with Creation—including the sonic order in which music resides—is to be defined only by personal preference, and not by something actually residing in the nature of things, how can we hope to bear witness to a Sovereign Creator who ordered all of reality, and who stands in judgment against those who reject his ordering of things?

Music is a great and unique gift from God, and the Western musical tradition that developed into what we commonly call classical music was in significant ways shaped by the influence of the Church in its desire to cultivate the full and remarkable capacities of this gift. By failing to sustain a mature appreciation for the capacities of music within the Christian community, we lose one of the greatest resources God has given us to assist in bearing witness to his glory and to something of the glorious order he has imparted to Creation. Christian students are in need of the training of affections with regard to beauty no less than with truth or goodness, although they are culturally disposed to resent it even more. But particularly with regard to music: if music really is the unique merging of spiritual and material, of temporal and eternal, of intellectual and emotional realities, if it is the perpetual activity of angels and the eternal destiny of the redeemed, then its capacities shouldn’t suffer from neglect or carelessness or expediency or impatience. Like the Kingdom to which it bears witness, it is a pearl of great price, worthy of sacrifice, diligence, and joyous discovery.

It’s the Culture Stupid

Restructuring classroom practices and curricular contents is easy compared to the challenge of reordering the ethos of a school and of the lives of its members. but if education is the reorientation of the affections, then the texture of everyday life (in school and out) may be more definitive than the content in books, lectures and conversations. This seminar will examine the role of cultural style in forming students and offer some ideas and principles for sustaining the healthiest cultural ecosystems.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by historic Christian thought and practice. He was formerly the editor of This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. A graduate of the University of Maryland and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Mr. Myers is the author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books, 1989). He has wri en for numerous periodicals, including The Wilson Quarterly, Discipleship Journal, and First Things. He writes a regular column in Touchstone magazine called “From Heavenly Harmony,” has served on several evaluation panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, and lectures frequently at colleges, universities, seminaries, and churches around the country.