In the last article, I began grappling with the persistent and important question of why we, as Christians, should have our students reading secular literature that was produced by pagans and often revolves around mature themes. If you remember, I argued that 1) a student – particularly a classical Christian student – cannot pretend to be thoroughly educated without an acquaintance with some of these works, and that 2) mysterious as this may seem in God’s providence, it seems to be the case that many of the most beautiful and excellent examples of literature are drawn from secular sources. These are both true and important reasons, but are largely practical. In order to really get to the heart and make sense of this question, we must go one “but why?” deeper.
Perhaps the most important answer to the question of why we study secular works is the following foundational reason: our God is the God of all things, and therefore, under His authority and with His wisdom, we are both equipped to grapple with all things and required to so. A classical Christian school’s most fundamental goal is to cultivate a thoroughly gospel-saturated Christian worldview in our students, and a Christian worldview is not one that only sees what is Christian, but one that sees the entire world and filters it critically through a biblical lens. The very best way for students to learn to do this is to start practicing in the safe and carefully guided setting of a strong Christian environment. If the school and the parents together are doing our job faithfully, then that biblical worldview is more than strong enough to not only stand toe to toe with pagan works, but to draw out the good and to identify and discard the bad. It is, in fact, very important that they learn to do so, for, barring the possibility of them joining a cloistered Christian commune for their entire lives, that is exactly what they will need to do every day of their lives in this fallen world.
All of these reasons are rooted in our fundamental understanding of who God is. If God is truly GOD, then He is God of all – he is the fount of truth and goodness and beauty. He is the Creator and definer of all reality, and thus all works that deal truly with the fundamental realities of human nature and the world (one of the hallmarks of great literature and art) are going to display God whether they intend to or not. Every piece of beauty, every nugget of truth, every well-turned phrase comes from and reflects back the glory of the God who is the author of all goodness. In that sense, every great work of literature is Christian! This is a comprehensive – and, we believe, biblical – definition of what brings honor to God and edification to His people. In fact, we think that the Scriptures demonstrate that the Lord gains a particularly brilliant form of glory when He brings forth His truth and His praise from the most unsuspecting and unexpected sources. Consider Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Saul of Tarsus.
To use a very practical literature example, I think of when my students read Albert Camus last year. He is one of the most defiantly unbelieving authors imaginable, but a milestone writer in literary history. He creates a self-reminiscent main character in The Stranger who rages against religion throughout his entire book and dies in defiant despair, shaking his fist at God. And yet the unnamed Scriptures hang heavy over the entire work, for, in order to end up in such a state, he must deliberately turn away from traditional and rational morality, wrestling angrily with fundamental human questions and realities that only find satisfactory explanation in the truths of the Bible. It is the perfect opportunity to show my students the horrifying logical conclusion of rejecting truth and goodness as the Scripture defines them.
This is one of my favorite things about literature – my God rules every aspect of truth and reality, and therefore the most pagan authors cannot escape the fundamental realities of Christ if they want to say anything that rings remotely true. One of the great joys and rewards of teaching, then, is to hand these secular works to the students and teach them how to see what is good, identify what has been twisted into something wrong, and to discern that every work screams in one way or another that the gospel is reality – it is inescapably around every corner no matter where you turn.
Augustine calls this the process of “plundering the Egyptian gold.” When God called the Israelites out of Egypt, they were laden down with the treasures of the pagan peoples – much of it probably from the very temples in which false gods were worshiped. And the Lord not only allowed the people to take those spoils, but He specifically predisposed the Egyptians to shower all these things on the Israelites. Then he turns that gold to His own purposes, using it to build and furnish the tabernacle. Augustine applied that principle to the argument going on in his own day about whether or not Christians should be learning and utilizing pagan Greek and Roman philosophies and strategies of Rhetoric. He essentially urged, “plunder the Egyptians for every nugget of gold and astound the world by using it to God’s glory!” The classical Christian educator says, “Amen!”, pointing to a plethora of biblical examples where the Lord uses pagan training and wisdom to prepare His people for His own purposes. Consider Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Paul, and Timothy.
Having said all this, I do not at all mean to dismiss the very necessary discussion of age-appropriate material nor the varying opinions on how exactly to wisely discern which specific secular works are “gold worth plundering” and which are worthless Mardi Gras beads. I will leave that for another discussion. However, I joyfully and enthusiastically urge my students and parents to understand and embrace this aspect of classical Christian education. I am in the business of searching out every golden thread of beauty and truth – whether I find them in Byron or Bunyan, in Piper or Plato – for I am utterly confident that all such treasures belong to my Lord and will only assist me in seeing and promoting my Lord’s authority over all things, in all the world, through all of time. My God is that big, that sovereign, that unexpectedly imaginative, and that glorious – Praise Him!