Educational Splendor

C.S. Lewis believed that at the heart of our current moral and spiritual crisis there was the loss of objective values. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are today a matter of mere subjective preference. This workshop will explore the historic nature of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, how the objective values have been lost in modern secular society, and how to foster classroom practices that awaken a love for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in teacher and student alike.

Steve Turley

Steve Turley (Ph.D., Durham University) is a theologian, social theorist, classical Christian educator, and prize-winning classical guitarist. He is the author of The Ritualised Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, and Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Steve blogs on the church, society and culture, education, and the arts at He is a faculty member at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, DE, where he teaches Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric, and Professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University. Steve lectures at universities, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His research and writings have appeared in such journals as Christianity and Literature, Calvin Theological Journal, First Things, Touchstone, and The Chesterton Review. He and his wife, Akiko, have four children and live in Newark, DE, where they together enjoy shing, gardening, and watching Duck Dynasty marathons.

Men Without Chests

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ [the heart] and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

—C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
—Judges 21: 25

Most of you by now know the story of the best cyclist in the history of the sport, Lance Armstrong. An enormously gifted athlete at the top of the cycling world, Armstrong suffered from stage IV cancer and was given a high probability that he would not live. He not only survived his cancer, of course, Armstrong became the seven-time winner of the prestigious Tour de France, transforming the sport as the greatest in its storied history. His success ran so deep that it was seen as unbelievable, defying natural human ability. Armstrong defended himself for years against critics accusing him of using performance- enhancing drugs, usually very vociferously and defiantly, including winning millions in successful lawsuits. And, of course, we all know that he recently admitted that his success was not so natural, that he indeed had the assistance of the most sophisticated drug machine known in all of sports and destroyed the careers, the reputations, the bank accounts, and, to a degree, even the lives of untold others who got in his way. And, now that he has come “clean,” he does so with virtually no remorse or contrition, unrepentant in his confession. His only crime, he implies, is that he was caught. He lied and destroyed, and angrily defended himself in the process, to protect only himself, a self-absorbed narcissist of epic proportions.

There is outrage by many at Armstrong—and outrage at those not outraged—because of his lack of honor and virtue. But Armstrong, I argue, is merely the fruit of our cultural tree. The shocking things are not his lies and seemingly unrepentant, unremorseful attitude, but our feigned outrage at Armstrong’s lack of honesty and lack of soul. Should we really expect any more from a culture based on falsehood? Armstrong’s mantra of “everyone’s doing it” may seem weak, but it is one of the mantras of our postmodern world, a world of relativism so similar to the tenth century BC when the writer of Judges proclaimed that, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Armstrong is by no means alone at the judgment seat; we read and hear of Manti T’eo’s lies and the subsequent Notre Dame cover up, the affairs of General Petraeus, the Benghazi cover up, the slightly less-recent Enron deceit and debacle; the list can fill volumes.

Our society undermines honesty in every way imaginable. Underhanded behavior is glorified. Unfaithful spouses are glamorized. Untouched photos are gone. In our nation, politicians are not elected based on their deeply held convictions or their ability to accomplish great things. We choose men and women who are most able to deceptively convince the most people that they agree with them. Lying is not frowned upon. Quite the contrary; it is expected. For truth, you see, has become relative, and therefore ever illusive.

Every photo published is almost expected to be a lie of some sort. Photoshop and filters make pictures seem as if the subject were perfect. Magazines portray a false life as the object of desire. Never mind that it is literally unattainable. Chasing the lie will keep you buying more things. In sports, like so many other areas of our culture, the frequently repeated phrase is, “It is not cheating unless you get caught.” Armstrong, then, never really cheated. He never was caught while competing, only after retirement. We told him performance-enhancing drugs were perfectly fine, so long as he let us believe our naïve fantasy about “LiveStrong.”

Manti T’eo was embarrassed about being conned in such a heart-wrenching manner, so instead of coming clean, he perpetuated the very fraud that was committed against him. And his university—my dear wife’s alma mater, by the way—covered it up. It was more important to the school to keep its squeaky-clean image during its national football championship quest; it was more important to T’eo to remain respectable in the eyes of others than to be honest. What’s that? Respectability is the opposite of honesty? That is our culture. In a world where “image is everything,” integrity is nothing. In a culture where there are no longer absolute truths, you can create your own truths, your own reality. And, all is fine unless you get caught.

In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis included an essay entitled “Men Without Chests.” In it, Lewis depicts one of the problems with our culture: we ask for a virtue while cultivating the opposing vice. Lewis was prophetic in pointing out that relativism—the idea that there is no absolute truth—would lead to the decay of morality and a lack of virtue within society. Without a belief in and the teaching of universal moral laws, we fail to educate the heart and are left with intelligent men who behave like animals, or as Lewis puts it, “men without chests.” Lewis’ treatise (written in 1947) is about the failed educational system, and he asks the question: Can we really divorce truth and values from education? Many of the “experts” of Lewis’s day thought so. Since that time, the idea of “values neutral” education has been all the
rage. It began with the simple relativistic assumption that there is really no such thing as transcendent “right” and “wrong.” This is, of course, the ultimate conclusion we are forced to draw when we adopt some form of naturalism and place humanity as the ultimate arbiter of reality. As we proceeded into the postmodern era, that assumption spread like cancer through academia. From there, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation [became] the philosophy of government the next.” Today, there is hardly a part of Western culture— including the church—that isn’t infected with the idea.

Before long, the educational theorists realized that they must teach some form of truth and morality, if for no other reason than crowd control. In keeping with their attempt to be values-neutral, they settled on a hollow secular humanism that simply compounded the problem, demanding that children act morally while giving them no compelling reason to do so. Ultimately, students essentially were led to believe that it only pays to be morally upright when you think that someone will catch you.

This dilemma is precisely what Lewis predicted. As a culture, we produce men and women “without chests” and we expect them to do the right thing anyway. Heads may appear to have swelled in our time, but largely because chests have atrophied. Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o and General Petraeus and so many others may indeed be men without chests, but they are our men without chests. That doesn’t make what they did excusable. It makes what each of us do each day to affirm honesty and truth, particularly God’s Truth, so very important.

Truth and the Moral Imagination

I agree that “academic training in a Christian context IS spiritual formation.” While there is more to spiritual formation than training the mind there should not be less. Intellectual training is an important component of spiritual formation and the one the school can most easily address.

Of course, “being smart” doesn’t inevitably lead to being more spiritual, but those who are zealous for God but don’t know why they believe what they believe are those most likely to be “faith dropouts.”

I saw and talked with a lot of faith dropouts and potential faith dropouts while working at L’Abri in the 70’s, and the great majority were those who had been told, “Don’t ask questions; just BELIEVE.” (It was this phenomenon among other things that led two of us former L’Abri workers to begin The Imago School.)

A lot rests on what “academic training in a Christian context” looks like. I think it needs to begin with a clear understanding by all those involved that Christianity is the truth about reality, all of reality. The students should get the message directly and indirectly that knowing who God is and what He says is crucial for a right understanding of everything, and not just for one narrow area of life. Hence, we go far beyond teaching information, and we talk about ideas and how to make judgments about whether ideas are true to what is.

We also are consciously shaping the moral imaginations of our students based on a Biblical view of goodness as we teach literature and history, including biblical history, and see models of virtuous behavior. Students taught to think Christianly about every area of study will come to see Christianity as not just a limited set of rules, beliefs, and practices but as the truth about reality.

I would go so far as to say that a school with a chaplain, a great chapel program, and a separate class in character development or spiritual disciplines but with little concern for a Christian view of reality being presented across the curriculum is actually doing a disservice to students and families by furthering a split view of reality—the view that academic learning and spiritual growth have little to do with each other. All our teaching, along with all our interactions with students, should be infused with the understanding that Christianity is first of all TRUE.

Another way that this kind of teaching about objective reality and true ideas aids in spiritual formation is that it helps students get out of themselves. An inflated view of self and the importance of my feelings and opinions is the main obstacle to growth in godliness. Those who learn to submit to the truth of what is and wonder at its beauty and unity are in a better place for the work of the Holy Spirit to go on in their lives.

Filling the Theological Gap

Let’s not give short shrift to the role of theological study in spiritual formation. This has always been an indispensable ingredient in the church’s recipe for healthy Christians. When we turn our eyes to the example of those who came before, I will argue that historically theological instruction played a much more prominent role than it does now. Christian schools ought to ll the gap left by our churches in
this area.

To start with, I take spiritual formation to mean “having a healthy Christian life.” For most of Christian history, it was believed that growing to spiritual health primarily occurred in the church. In the Reformation, this view still pertained, but the Eucharist no longer was understood to have the same spiritual value as the preaching of the word. Exploring this shift helps us to answer the question of how to do spiritual formation.

The Reformation theologians fundamentally taught that God’s central and complete gift to us, through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, was Himself. As the Westminster Catechism famously states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” God bestows Himself on us, so healthy Christianity means realizing more and more fully the consequences of that profound gift.

“But,” it might be objected, “surely the Reformation intended to decrease the significance of the institutional Church in light of this gift. How can the Church’s role diminish and yet remain the primary place in which believers are sanctified?”

This objection is only voiced on the other side of the triumph of individualism in the modern and post-modern period, and it would strike the mainstream Reformers and their Protestant heirs as strangely misguided. The Church—and the family as an extension of it—should continue to be the focus of the believer’s spiritual formation. It is in the church that we more deeply come to understand the divine self-disclosure through the preaching of the word, worship, the sacraments, and fellowship. Remember that individual “quiet time” is a relatively recent phenomenon. We should surely pray and read the Scriptures on our own, but such practices do not dislodge the local church, our primary community, as the source of our spiritual formation.

One of the practices that has traditionally been a crucial part of church life—Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—was catechization and the recitation of creeds in the church service. In addition, sermons tended much more toward what we would now call “abstract” theology (the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.) and derived moral exhortation from it. All of these factors compounded reveal that the Church highly values theological teaching as an important means of sanctification.

Theology is the contemplation of who God is. Churches affirmed the creeds each Sunday and expected everyone to go through a catechism class in order to learn about God’s character, illustrated especially through the dramatic narrative of His saving work. If sanctification means more deeply grasping God’s gift of Himself to us in salvation, leading to forming our characters as we learn to live in His kingdom, then what better way to achieve this goal than learning theology?

Many of us think of theology as dry and boring. When properly understood as engagement with the loving God of the universe Himself and taught by someone who loves God and can communicate this passion, it will be anything but dull.

For a host of reasons, which I need not rehearse, our contemporary churches have mostly neglected the teaching of theology. If Sunday School (for adults and children) is failing to give God’s people what they need in terms of theological confessions, creeds, and catechisms, then this is a void into which the Christian school must step. Classical schools are especially well poised to fill this gap since they often already have faculty capable of dynamically teaching these things. The ethos of our schools is take knowledge per se and the past seriously.

I grant that this has not traditionally been the role of the school. However, the Christian school exists for the sake of the church; its task is to educate the next generation of members of the body of Christ.

Let me offer some brief suggestions about how theological teaching should be done. In the lower grades, students should memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s creed, along with a denominational confession if the school has one. Memorization should be accompanied with age-appropriate instruction regarding the meaning of these items. In the upper grades, students ought to take time in Bible class or chapel services to work through the meaning of the creeds, which is best accomplished through a catechism. Presbyterian schools will choose the Westminster Catechism, while more broadly Evangelical schools can affirm nearly everything in the oft-overlooked and underestimated Heidelberg Catechism.

I will admit: it is tough to sell this to parents as a solution to the demand for “spiritual formation.” Teaching theology is not the only way to accomplish this, of course, and it will be essential to integrate service to the community, corporate and private prayer, modeling by faculty and staff of a well-formed spiritual life, and the relevant practices I am sure other responders in this issue suggest.

Whether in the school, church, or home, though, let us do well by our students to see them as God’s beloved children who need to be nurtured in his life-giving truth. Let us study theology.