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My book Sunday Mornings: An Introduction to Biblical Worship will be available in early January!

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A Minister’s Confession

Here’s an old prayer, from The Valley of Vision.  Humbling and, therefore, so needful, this prayer should really be a part of every pastor’s routine:

“O GOD,

I know that I often do thy work
without thy power,
and sin by my dead, heartless, blind service,
my lack of inward light, love, delight,
my mind, heart, tongue moving
without thy help.
I see sin in my heart in seeking the approbation
of others;
This is my vileness, to make men’s opinion
my rule, whereas
I should see what good I have done,
and give thee glory,
consider what sin I have committed
and mourn for that.
It is my deceit to preach, and pray,
and to stir up others’ spiritual affections
in order to beget commendations,
whereas my rule should be daily
to consider myself more vile than any man
in my own eyes.
But thou dost show thy power by my frailty,
so that the more feeble I am,
the more fit to be used,
for thou dost pitch a tent of grace
in my weakness.
Help me to rejoice in my infirmities
and give thee praise,
to acknowledge my deficiencies before others
and not be discouraged by them,
that they may see thy glory more clearly.
Teach me that I must act by a power supernatural,
whereby I can attempt things above my strength,
and bear evils beyond my strength,
acting for Christ in all,
and have his superior power to help me.
Let me learn of Paul
whose presence was mean,
his weakness great,
his utterance contemptible,
yet thou didst account him faithful and blessed.
Lord, let me lean on thee as he did,
and find my ministry thine.”

“Beauty in the Word”: A Brief Review

A reprint of my post for the CiRCE Institute.

Stratford Caldecott’s 160-page new book Beauty in the Word has proven difficult for me to finish, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

Serving as a sequel to his 2009 work Beauty for Truth’s Sake, in which Caldecott offered a study of the mathematical arts of the Quadrivium and called for an education that reintegrates the arts and sciences, Beauty in the Word examines the Trivium – the foundational arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and calls for their application in ways that recognize and honor the human nature of both child and teacher.

Far from a simple (and all-too-familiar) regurgitation of the Trivium as three “stages” of learning that corresponds to natural child development, Caldecott’s work examines the Trivium in more human terms – as Remembering, Thinking, and Communicating.

He argues that “education is not primarily about the acquisition of information.  It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society.  It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word)…Too often we have not been educating our humanity.  We have been educating ourselves for doing rather than for being.”  His exploration of the Trivium in that light is truly inspiring.

Beauty in the Word is an inspiring, challenging and even convicting book.  Perhaps that’s why it has proven so difficult to finish.  Stratford Caldecott has done us a great service.  It’s my hope that Beauty in the Word will be widely, but slowly, read by many others.

Culture-Makers or Culture Warriors? (Part Three)

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” – Jesus (John 17:15-16)

As the divide between Church and culture deepened, the Church gave two replies – retreat and acquiescence.  Refusing the progressive or liberal tendency to sanction the deeds and ideas of culture,  more conservative minds drew back, creating increasingly small and divided subcultures.  Liberals became “of the world” while conservatives refused even to be “in” it.

But this is only part of the puzzle.  Disillusioned with the failed promises of modernity, the culture itself made a move, embracing the despair of postmodernism.  Seeing the cracks in scientism and logical positivism, many, while holding fast to doubts about “absolute” truth, began to be more open to the life of the soul.  Sadly, this has been, for the most part, a missed opportunity for the Church.  The “liberal church” had embraced everything the culture was trying to leave behind, while the “conservative church” was in hiding.

Given postmodern culture’s cynicism towards truth and goodness, the importance of beauty is hard to overstate.  Robert Royal observed that “where truth is assumed a priori not to exist, images and atmosphere will shape how most people think.”  In other words, the spiritual searching of the postmodern does not typically follow lines of dogma or argument, but beauty and image.  They are seeking, if that is the word I want, for something beautiful; something to counter the coldness and ugliness of modernity.

The Christian reply has been quite weak, for the most part.  While there are encouraging signs that Christians are again taking the imagination and the arts seriously, there is much work still to be done.  Conservative Christianity finds itself deeply rooted in the subculture mentality and, as a result, would rather establish “Christian” everything – clothing, publishers and books, record labels and music, etc. – than actually engage with the culture.  And, what’s far worse, this subculture mentality fuels the creation of politicized, ideological art – books that lack imagination, art that tells but doesn’t show, music that blends trite content with non-matching forms.  Put more directly, so much of contemporary Christian art stinks because it plays to uncritical, friendly audiences who prefer sentimental uplift to quality art.

Whenever Christians are taught to engage culture, it is through a kind of guerilla warfare – a direct evangelism fueled by the structured, logical arguments of apologists.  We have combined cultural retreat with evangelism, somehow attempting to be neither in the world (in any substantive sense) norof it.  The effect of this strategy is seen in the culture’s response to modern Christianity – mockery of our “art”, dismissal from cultural dialogue, and suspicion of our occasional forays into the world.  Having preferred culture-warring to culture-making, we have reduced “culture” to mere politics and ideology which, as Gregory Wolfe wrote, “is like constantly spraying insecticide and never watering or fertilizing the soil.”

Yet, the idea that beauty could bring about cultural change or even cultural influence seems either far-fetched or impractical to the modern Christian or conservative mind.  Wolfe argues,

“Conservatives have, by and large, focused their energies on political action and the theoretical work necessary to undertake action.  The indirection of art, with its lack of moralizing and categorizing, strikes the pragmatic mind as being unedifying, and thus inessential.  Insofar as the great artists and writers of the past are admired, it is for their support of some idea, rather than for the complex, many-sided vision of their art.”

Christians seem to distrust the imagination because its results are not direct or “guaranteed” like those of logical argument.

What, then, are we to do?  How does the Christian community go about correcting such missteps?  While this discussion cannot readily be reduced to bullet points or “action items,” there are several thoughts and changes we must consider.  Christians must take time to contemplate what it means to love the world.  How can we be “in” it in substantive, engaging, meaningful ways, while not falling to the progressive error of becoming “of” the world?  I fear these issues have received only pat answers, generally falling along political and ideological lines.  We ought to read those who challenge the typical answers – Gregory Wolfe (whose writings, any reader of this trilogy of articles can tell, have greatly challenged my own thinking), Andy Crouch, Dorothy Sayers, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.

Furthermore, we must realize the great weakness and danger of our tendency towards “action” rather than contemplation.  What has the conservative and Christian dependence on politics and “social action” gotten us?  To quote Gregory Wolfe once more:

“For Christians, the idea that contemplation and prayer ought to precede action should be second nature.  How many of us have become unwitting disciples of Marx, who said that ‘up till now it has been enough to understand the world; it is for us to change it’?  Marx’s preference for revolutionary action over the classical-Christian belief in the primacy of contemplative understanding of transcendent order lies at the heart of modern ideology.”

Finally, in direct application to classical educators, we must make sure that as we equip our students with the tools of logic, that they are used for more than argument; that as we train them in rhetoric, it is used for more than debate.  The goal of classical education is not that we send students through the gauntlet of the trivium, but that they love and, therefore, live truth, goodness, and beauty; that they love wisdom and virtue; that they live to persuade, not as a subject or discipline, but as a life.

Reposted from my weekly column for the CiRCE Institute

Lessons from Toilet Sounds, My Wife & King Solomon

Three sounds – a loud shriek, splashing, and the slamming of the toilet lid – brought me quickly from the kitchen to the hall bathroom.  Greeted by a smiling, soaking wet toddler walking rapidly from the room, I knew I was in for something special.  I was not to be disappointed.  Toilet paper had been spun directly from the holder into the toilet and water covered the floor.

After cleaning up Asher’s bit of performance art, I walked back toward the kitchen to finish getting dinner together.  I stepped into the living room to find Ian jumping on the couch and his sister, Temperance, crying.  A quick word brought the jumping to an end and, just as I attempted to console our daughter, I heard another crash in the kitchen.  You get the idea.

When my wife descended the stairs, having prepared pajamas and the other necessities for bedtime, she looked my way and smiled, “How’s it going?”  By this point, I managed a laugh and muttered a vague comment about how fast our children are.

My wife, Shannon, is a homeschooling mom and has super-powers.  Somehow, in addition to doing an excellent job teaching phonics, writing, and math to our daughter (age 5), she finds ways to fuel Ian’s (age 3) great enthusiasm for learning, and still rebuild after Asher’s (18 months) Tasmanian devil impersonations.  And, what’s more, Shannon seems so excited about it.

Now, I could go on bragging on my wife and gladly proclaiming to you her sterling character, but I know (deep down) she’s not (entirely) perfect.  She gets tired and overwhelmed, just like every other parent and/or teacher.  Yet, even in those times I have learned from her.  Almost like clockwork, she reminds herself of the blessing of homeschooling.  She finds strength in the souls of her children, and the knowledge that God has given her the opportunity to feed and nurture them.

In Ecclesiastes 6, Solomon describes a man who is blessed with one hundred children and two thousand years of life, but still “his soul is not satisfied with goodness.”  He has “no burial” and even his long life is forgotten.  Having never learned to be satisfied with the goodness given to him, he goes to the grave having lost it all.  Never delighting his soul in his children, he has no one to bury him.  Never having delighted himself in the years of his life, he goes to the grave forgotten.

Blessings bring responsibilities, but even those should delight our souls.  Sometimes blessings are messy.  They can be wet, hyperactive, emotional, loud, and overwhelming; but, for all these “troubles,” we dare not forget that they are blessings.