The Christian faith is a religion of world conquest, and no, not that kind of world conquest. If we do not believe this, then every form of cultural engagement will be simply a form of slow surrender. It is the way of compromise. You can always tell this kind of person because they are always wrestling with the contours of something or other. And if you don’t believe in the triumph of the gospel, and you don’t want to surrender, then the only safe thing to do is to go the way of the neo-Amish. But there is another approach.
“And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
I want to take a moment to review what we mean by the paideia of God. No doubt many of you have heard me on this topic before, and so I will just take a few moments with some review. But I want to do this so that we can go just a little bit further up, and a little bit further in.
So Paul tells Christian fathers to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. One of the words he uses here is paideia, which for the ancients was a loaded term. Shoe, and table, and glass are common nouns. Paideia is freighted with meaning, an abstract noun that was a big Hellenistic deal. If you haunt bookstores, occasionally you will run across a quirky history of something like salt, or the table fork, and the fun is the novelty of it. But back home I own a three-volume treatment of the word paideia, and the author was in deadly earnest. This work is not a symptom of scholarly mental problems, but rather a sober and helpful study of a word that held for the ancients the same kind of meaning that democracy would for us.
My understanding of paideia in this sense (the sense I believe Paul is using) would be summed up with the word enculturation. But enculturation presupposes a culture. The idea refers to the insinuation of Christian kids into a Christian culture, the incorporation of our children into a mere Christendom.
In Paul’s day, that presupposed culture did not yet exist, and so the parents of Ephesus were being instructed to create one. But how do you do that? In our day, that culture existed once, and is now a magnificent ruin, with stones of varying size scattered about. How do we—referring now to the name of our conference—rebuild the ruins?
Why do we flatter ourselves, as though we had the right to shrug and give up? Why do we abandon hope regarding the building of a mere Christendom, when our only argument is that it been done before? What kind of sense does that make?
Since this is our assumed task, then this is the question. How are we supposed to accomplish something like that? Initially it might sound a little bit crazy to our modern secular age, but when I am done I trust they will think that I am barking mad.
How do we call things that are not as though they are (Rom. 4:17; Is. 46:9-10)? Only God can create ex nihilo, but we are commanded to “create” after Him, imitatively. The biblical way this is done is through the word. In and through the Word all things were created. And that is the way things are to be recreated also. That is the way everything is rebuilt. The Word must come first.
Words do not simply come after the fact, describing things as they exist, raw and in their own right. Words do far more than simply attach lables. It is not simply a descriptive slave of “the way things are.” No, the word is also prescriptive—the authoritative word goes out, and a new world comes to be. The world of the future is taking shape around us, and it is the Word that makes it come to be. The Word brings new life. “For God who commanded light to shine out of darkness hath shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7). And as the Word does what it does, our imitative words follow after, doing the little follow up things that they are capable of doing, like creating new civilizations.
There are many areas where this has an application, and obviously I believe the central one has to do with preaching. That is another subject for another time, but it is related to the topic before us. Teaching and education are right up there. We are teachers, we work with words, which means that we are builders of worlds.
In your context, in your classical Christian school, what does this mean? Let’s bring this down to a practical level. It means two key ingredients—books and imagination. Let’s consider each of them in turn. Earlier I mentioned stones of varying size, scattered stones in the ruins. Most of them are shaped like books. They are how we can make out the formation of the ruins. We can tell where the city needs to be rebuilt again. Let us stop by the river. The leaves of the trees are for healing, and so let us build by the river.
In this respect, we have a great advantage over the Christian parents of Ephesus. They had never seen or heard of the Christianization of a sophisticated and urbane pagan civilization. That kind of an overthrow had never happened before. From our vantage, it has happened before. The thing has been done. You can read about it in books. They had the assignment, and no examples. We have the same assignment, and one grand example. Remember—never argue for the impossibility of a task from the fact that others with fewer resources have done it before.
So, books. Distance learning is not a new thing. We have always had distance learning. That is what books are. Augustine was sitting in his study in North Africa, feeling a certain way about the pears he had stolen as a youth. He put those feelings down on paper, and many centuries later I extracted those same feelings from different paper, with intervening translations, wars, empires, reformations, all doing their part.
This is one of the most exciting things in the world. I mean, how is this even possible? But this exciting thing is not beyond the contaminating grasp of dullards. Remember—oh, ye classical and Christian educators!—that Jesus taught with authority and not like the scribes. Scribes are those who shuffle around learnedly, and to borrow a phrase from Yeats, coughing in ink. Scribes are those who tear out pages from the classics, wad them up into elephant pills, in order to choke the children. Scribes are the musty smell of death you get in a used bookstore with a mildew problem. Scribes are the wrecking ball of a marred culture, which is nothing at all like the fancy dress ball of a merry culture. Scribes take the milk of education, which is to be the life of the children, and boil them in it.
Please don’t mistake me. I am not at war with learning, or with great learning, or with vast learning. I am not backing away from a recovery of discipline. I do not advocate a floating moonbeam approach to classical Christian education. What I am saying is simply this. There are the nazi schoolmarms and the gradgrinders on the one hand, and those who, on the other hand, would change all our classical disciplines into a national free verse tournament, attended exclusively by thousands of junior high girls. The former want the kids to choke down a bowl of driveway gravel, while the latter urge them to try to get down a bowl of cotton balls, soaked in maple syrup.
Why not the paideia of God? Why not intelligent and focused discipline that knows where it is going and why? This leads to the second point. We must have hard work. We must have discipline. We must have pedagogical order. But it must be anointed with imagination.
Going back to Rom. 4:17, God is the one who calls things that are not as though they are. But when God calls it that way, what does Abraham do? He believes, and in the Bible, when we believe, we speak (Ps. 116:10; 2 Cor. 4:13). Speaking with faith means speaking with true imagination. And Napoleon was right, at least on this point, when he said that imagination rules the world.
What is it that overcomes the world? Is it not our faith (1 Jn. 5:4)? But faith does not just overthrow worlds, it replaces those worlds with another world. We do not want to cast out a devil, and then wait for seven worse devils to return. And so true imagination speaks with real authority.
What are your materials? Books, books, and more books. Purchase them with imagination and faith. You need grist for your mill. The books are the grain, your mind is the mill, and your imagination bakes the bread. Your students should eat the bread, so make sure it is fresh, and make sure there is plenty of honey butter. Build a civilization in front of your students, and do it while waving your hands in the air. Let your cheeks get hot. Use the glorious examples we have, not to mention the tragedies and disasters. Talk about Roland, and Alfred. Tell them what happened at Lepanto and Malta. Tell them how many times God’s people have been beleaguered and surrounded, how many times we have been just a huddled camp of refugee saints—just like we are now—and tell them how God delivered us. Tell them that He has done it hundreds of times, and yet we still have trouble believing He will do it the next time. Our hearts grow thick, a fly buzzes in the window, and we stare malevolently at yet another book that has covers too far apart. But the problem is not there, in the material, but here, in the heart of unbelief. Shake yourself free of apathy and sloth. But lift up your heads; our redemption is drawing nigh.
The fact that we need to go over this so many times is the first argument for it. If we had had a Christian education, it wouldn’t take so many times for us to grasp the concept.
The secular state, and its various projects, will collapse when Christians stop supporting it. Their cathedral of secularism only stands because we are willing to be the flying buttresses. But that is not our assigned role.
One last thing, a personal note. After this talk, Nancy and I will be sitting at the Canon table in case you want to come by and say hey. I want to do this to encourage you to get in amongst the vendors and make every one of them sad—sad that they did bring more of whatever it was that you went and bought them out of.
If the apostle Paul were here at this conference, do you know where he would be? He wouldn’t be in here listening to me. He would be in the room next door—without his name tag—hovering over the book tables. “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Whatever you do, Timothy, don’t forget the parchments. Forget the food, forget the winter cloak, but don’t forget the parchments.
And any book that he bought from our worthy vendors and took home to read would be read with faith, hope and love, with a baptized and sanctified imagination. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:1–2).
I wish I had the imagination to describe it for you, but I don’t, and I am done. But no matter. When you are done building it, you will know what it looks like.