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No. 40: The Case Against Western Civilization, Part 5

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 40
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
June, 1998

Part 5: Laying New Foundations in a Dying World

As I mentioned above, the history of Israel involved several centuries as a church-without-a-culture, and then several centuries as a culture-without-a-city. To be sure, there was an informal culture around the church of the Patriarchs, but the civilization of free farmers had not yet come into existence. And in the second period there were, to be sure, walled cities, but the high culture of the days of Solomon had not arrived.

This history is like a hot-house plant. Israel did not develop within an already-existing high civilization, with all its cultural temptations. The history of the Church is rather different. The full empowerment of God’s people by the coming of the Holy Spirit meant that they were sent out into existing cultures to transform them, not that they were to go to a desert island and set up a "city on a hill." The task was and is harder, but we have the resources to accomplish it: a completed Bible and the power of the Spirit.

The history given in the Bible should, however, inform how we speak into the already-existing cultures. The Church and her worship must be established, however secretly, first and foremost. That means a full Church life. No monks separating off to themselves away from the community. Vigorous psalm singing with instruments. Festivity and joy, not "forty days of fasting in Lent" and fasting every Friday. Weekly communion with real bread and a real glass of real wine. The teaching of the whole Bible, not just the so-called "New Testament."

When the Church speaks to society, she must speak first of Christ, and then second of the liberty of the images of God. Slavery, the abuse of women, tariffs, state-slavery of people, and other such social evils must be second on our agenda. Wars of conquest, imperialism, colonialism, and the like must be opposed. Our heroes must be those who, like the Spanish priests, opposed the oppression of the Spanish conquistadors. We must be like the "little Englanders" who opposed the English imperial expansion, while promoting missionaries and free trade. We must not join hands with those who would give to the state the power to control the economy, and who would oppress the hardworking poor of other lands by raising tariffs. Christians within "Western Civilization" have stood up against such evils in the past, and such prophets should be our models.

The practical outworking of such an agenda will involve subtleties, of course, and men of good will may well differ over particular points. But the overall agenda should not be in doubt.

Education for the Future

The collapse of "Western Civilization" provides an enviable opportunity for Christians at the present time, one that thus far they have not taken much advantage of. The development of "Christian Education" in the United States indicates a desire to provide a better future for our children, and promises much, but in most cases that promise is not yet being fulfilled.

God is easy to please but hard to satisfy. In terms of being easy to please, we can be sure that God is very pleased with the efforts of Church reformers and Christian educators. In terms of being hard to satisfy, however, a case can be made that there is not yet any true Christian education being done or advocated in this country — or precious little of it.

There are several reasons why I make this amazing statement, several reasons why Christian education has not yet fulfilled its promise. First of all, in times of crisis, such as ours, the human instinct is to look to the past for guidance. This is a trap. We are to look to the Bible, not to our past traditions. Many Christian schools (and throughout this discussion I include homeschooling) are really trying to do little more than provide a 1950s type of public school education. The curriculum has not been thought through from a distinctively Biblical standpoint, and there is no clear-cut vision of what kind of future such an education is designed to produce. A more recent movement in Christian schooling uses the word "classical" to describe itself, and while there is much to commend in this movement, there seems to be an emphasis on teaching Latin and the Western tradition as if these things could be revived on a more secure Christian foundation. I shall return to this matter below.

The second reason why Christian education has not fulfilled its promise is that modern evangelical Christians do not understand what human beings are. Human beings are not, as the Greco-Roman tradition teaches, homo sapiens, "thinking man." Rather, we are homo adorans, "worshipping man," something the Bible teaches and which the older pagans had not yet forgotten. Sadly, the Greek assumption seems to underlie most Christian education. Worship is basically left outside, and if included at all, is not foundational. As a result, education winds up being contextualized along a Greek, "thinking man," model.

Which brings us to the third reason, which is that modern evangelical Christians do not know what children are. For the evangelical, one thing that the child is not is a worshipper. The Baptist will not admit the child to the full worship of God, the central worship at the Supper, until he is an adolescent and is baptized. The Presbyterian is no better. Because both groups, and the many others around them, fail to see the child as fundamentally a worshipper — claimed by God at baptism and invited to His table from that moment on — there is no way that they can structure education from this foundation. The Greek view of education wins by default: Education is structured ideologically rather than liturgically, and by implication Christendom is reduced to an ideology: "Christianity."

Fourth, Christian education does not fulfill its promise because it is seldom tied to the church. The desire to have a growing and well-financed school, able to teach all grades and have decent programs, results a natural tendency to downplay denominational distinctives. No clear-cut liturgical foundation is possible under such cir-cumstances.

And finally, at the root of the failure of Christian education is the fact that the Church is still in dire need of reform. A liturgically based and liturgically contextualized education is not possible when the Church is not striving for Biblical adoration herself.

The reformation of the Church has been needed over and over again for 2000 years. Pretty soon after Constantine, the local churches stopped doing their work, and people ran after "holy men" and other teachers (often false teachers). In the Middle Ages, with the worship service in Latin people had to go outside the Church to get any Bible teaching, usually from friars who had no connection to the local church. Only with the Reformation did the Church once again become the center of life, but soon that also began to fall apart, so that in America today most Bible teaching takes place through parachurch organizations.

So, to begin with, let us run down a list of some of the basic things the Church must do in order to give guidance and context to Christian education:

1. Set up classes and teach the people of the Church the content of the whole Bible — real classes with tests from time to time and a final examination — and not allow anyone to be a voting member who cannot briefly describe every book of the Bible.

2. Set up classes and teach the people the whole book of Psalms, teaching them the outline and structure and narrative progression of each of the Five Books, and test them over the contents of all 150 psalms before allowing them to become voting members.

There is no way that either of these things can be done with a couple of psalms on Sunday morning and a sermon + Sunday School lesson each week. Nor can most people learn this on their own; the suggestion is frightening to them. But courses could easily be constructed that pared these things down to the essentials, and in only one year the people could be fully equipped.

3. Return the Lord’s Supper as the gathering point of the service, around both Word and Sacrament, with real bread and real wine, and with children (baptized of course) included.

4. Teach the psalter musically so that it is sung, with instruments, as God has commanded.

5. Set up classes for officer training that work through the law of God and the proverbs, and allow no one to be an officer who is not thoroughly steeped in this Biblical material.

6. Do real Church discipline.

7. Learn to greet one another with a holy kiss, as the Bible commands repeatedly.

Now, until and unless the Church does these few very simple and easy things, there is no way she can give guidance and direction to Christian education, and thereby form a new civilization. But with these matters in place, or at least underway, a genuinely Biblical Christian education becomes possible.

True education flows from worship and back to worship, because that is how the world really is. True education is not merely a matter of learning the descriptions of reality, but is fundamentally a matter of learning to move as God has directed. It is song and dance. We start by singing around His table. We move out into the world, learning things and doing things, and then we return as more mature singers to gather at His table. In this way, all that we do and all that we learn are liturgically contextualized, set in a context of ever increasingly wonderful sabbaths week by week and year by year and age after age.

Any "Christian education" that is not thus contextualized is by its nature going to be merely ideological. Such education may view its ideological training as the foundation of all civilization including the Church, or it may view its training as parallel to the liturgical work of the Church. Either way, it has adopted the Greek model of learning, for the Christian model is that learning grows out of liturgy and worship.

Which brings us back to "infant baptism." Every baptism is an infant baptism, for anyone becoming a Christian does so as an infant. Infant baptism is the sign that God has adopted the child as His own child, and that fact sets the context for Christian education. It is not possible to have consistent Christian education apart from infant baptism.

Which brings us back to "infant communion." Baptism is admission to the Lord’s Supper, pure and simple. There is no Biblical foundation for setting up another requirement for admission to the Table of the Lord. The child from his or her earliest years needs to know that he or she is fully accepted at God’s family meal. It is in that context, and only in that context, that real Christian education can take place.

Apart from these truths, Christian education becomes a matter of taking some "neutral" children and giving them facts and tools. It becomes a matter of acculturating them into some kind of "civilization" that is not a Christian civilization and cannot be a Christian civilization because it does not have worship at its heart. Thus, this kind of Christian education consists of acculturating the child into an ideological civilization divorced from sacrament and worship. Inevitably it means treating the child as homo sapiens instead of as homo adorans.

The "Trivium"

One of the strongest aspects of "classical Christian education" is that it uses Dorothy Sayer’s version of the "trivium" as a model for educating children in three stages of life. The grammar stage, when facts are absorbed by sponge-like minds, is found in grammar school. Miss Sayers calls this the "parrot" stage, because at this time children delight to learn lists and to chant them. Lots of memorization can be done easily at this stage of education, which extends up to around the 6th grade.

The logic stage, when young minds like to argue matters out, is fitted for middle school. Miss Sayers calls this the "pert" stage, because at this time children begin to challenge authority in a small way, and to become argumentative. This is for the middle school years.

The rhetoric stage, when young people become interested in art and glory, is fitted for high school. Miss Sayers calls this the "poet" stage, for young men and women begin to notice one another and begin to become expressive. They want to beautify what they know, to make it impressive.

Many Christian schools have used this model for many years, though of late it has become a selling point with so-called "classical" schools. Useful as Sayers’s observations are, there is more to be said about the matter, because these three phases are actually part of a larger and more pervasive pattern of human life.

What are these three stages of life and education built upon? They don’t come in a vacuum, because education and life-training do not begin with learning facts. There are two prior stages that must be understood if we are to understand a Christian philosophy of education.

The first stage of education is simple assurance. When the baby cries, mother picks him up and cuddles him. God has ordained it that mothers and fathers cannot resist a child’s cry. God has ordained it that babies must be held to be fed. Children need constant holding and hugging and reinforcement for two years before they start to "bust out" and go on their own: the so-called "terrible twos."

This is always where God starts with His people. He always assures them that He is on their side, that He loves them, that He cares for them. Grace always comes before any kind of law.

The second stage of education is story-telling. Young children before the grammar stage are alert to stories, and this is the time when stories are what they clamor for. "Tell me a story." "Read me a story." This is also where God starts. Building on assurance, God tells us stories before giving us His law. Genesis and the first half of Exodus come before the grammar stage of Mount Sinai.



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