“I’m curious as to why my son is reading a book in class that takes the Lord’s name in vain and contains cursing,” read the opening lines of an email from a rhetoric school parent. Thankfully, this email was courteous, genuinely curious, and was the beginning of a fruitful exchange. However, it was the latest in a line of similarly themed questions that I have received on a fairly regular basis ever since I began teaching in classical Christian schools. The questions vary in specifics and tone, and some have unfortunately bordered on hostility, but they all center around the same basic question – whether it is suitable for a Christian school to immerse students in distinctly secular works. I actually love having this discussion because it demonstrates to me that parents are staying current with their student’s work and are being careful and thoughtful about the moral content of their child’s education. It also provides a great opportunity to delve into a key aspect of classical Christian education.
Whether they realize it or not, when parents come to their students’ teachers seeking to understand why the school’s curriculum heavily utilizes secular works, they are not only peering into the very heart of classical Christian education, but they are also grappling with one of the great theological questions of the ages – a question most famously articulated by Tertullian when he asks, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens was historically the center of the most elite secular education available – the platform from which Socrates and Plato spoke – and Jerusalem, of course, was the city of God, where Jesus taught in the great temple and died at Calvary. Christ preached a kingdom not of this world and a wisdom that seems “foolish to the Greeks”, so the question that Christians have debated for centuries is this – what should be the relationship between secular learning and Christ’s wisdom? Can there be a relationship between the two, or must godly wisdom reject secular understanding as being built on foundations of sand? As it turns out, classical Christian educators’ answer to this question is one of the main pillars of their distinctive educational philosophy.
We answer resoundingly that Athens and Jerusalem are intimately connected – that Christians have much to learn even from pagans and that we ought not to be afraid of secular learning. In fact, this answer is implied in the very term “classical Christian”. There could theoretically be a school that studied only Christian works, and one might make a case that they were a good Christian school, but they would not be a classical school. Since “classical” traditionally refers to those academic and cultural things that came out of the ancient western cultures – most specifically Greece and Rome – our very name indicates that we embrace the value of learning from the secular works that come out of those impressive, but largely unbelieving, cultures.
But why? How exactly do I answer those concerned parents who have serious reservations about their children studying pagan authors or atheistic philosophers and scientists? Or object to them encountering mature language and content? It’s an important question – one that applies to each specific school subject, and one about which whole books could be written. However, this brief piece is already going to need to be put into two installments, so I think it will be best to stick to a few main points and to the subject where these questions most often come into focus – literature – trusting that the broader application can be at least partially inferred.
Let’s start with the most practical answer. Classical educators would argue that one simply cannot be a good scholar without grappling with secular works and mature themes. If a school’s goal is to ground its students in a knowledge of their cultural and individual identity, then they must delve into the history of their heritage – Western heritage, in our case. A teacher simply cannot give an academically honest survey of Western culture without including major secular works, many of which deal with mature content in varying degrees. If they claim to be teaching their students the fundamentals of good literature and literary history but skip The Iliad (pagan gods and adultery!), The Aeneid (suicide and graphic violence!), MacBeth (witchcraft!), and The Great Gatsby (cursing, drinking, adultery again!), they’re simply not doing their job as an honest and faithful scholar. They are leaving their students with huge gaps in their knowledge and a shaky foundation from which to build further academic studies. I also often note to parents that if they are disturbed by mature themes, then it is not only secular works they must worry about – they will be forced to heavily edit or exclude huge chunks of the Bible itself. Students will eventually run across these things (especially if they go to any decent higher learning institution) and they might well be thrown into a tailspin when asked to grapple with them – at the very least, they will feel stupid and rather betrayed by the education they received and thought was so good.
Classical Christian schools also purpose to train students to recognize and love what is true and good and beautiful. We believe that the ability to do so is fundamental to thinking rightly and loving God well. From this comes the second major reason that we study secular works – oftentimes, they are genuinely the best examples of their art form. If we are trying to cultivate a love of the highest excellence and beauty in our students, then we need to present them with the best examples. In God’s sovereign good will, He permitted some of the most beautiful and true things to be written, painted, composed, and spoken by unbelieving and sometimes even downright morally foul people. Shakespeare loved vulgar jokes and likely had several extramarital affairs during the very times when he was composing such famed lines as:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the Remover to remove” (Sonnet 116)
Byron was flamboyantly debauched and fled England to avoid being jailed for homosexuality, yet one cannot help but thrill to the resonating beauty of:
“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar” (Childe Harold)
Why did the Lord not just keep it nice and neat and only allow such beauty to be produced by faithful Christians? We cannot definitively answer that question, but I think it is an undeniable fact. I personally suspect that it has something to do with us learning the lesson that the fundamental reality and beauty of the Creator-God is absolutely inescapable in this world, and that He can bring it forth from any source He chooses.
Thus, practically speaking, a scholar simply cannot achieve the goal of being well-educated without spending significant time in secular or maturely-themed books. He will neither know the complete picture nor see the most beautiful and worthy literary examples unless he does so. But why has the Lord allowed this to be the case? Any does this dismiss the potential danger of unbelieving content and worldviews that are found within many secular works?
To answer those questions digs deep to the roots of this issue, and therefore, as with most important life questions, into who God is and how His created world fundamentally functions. And that deserves its own installment…