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Why biblical poetry matters

Skim through any modern Bible and you will notice something peculiar: many pages are laid out as poetry, with appropriate spacing and indents. But have you ever wondered what makes these verses poetic?

For most people, this subject remains an enigma, and some will wonder why they should even care. Poetry seems like the wrapping around a present, or the envelope for a card — superfluous and largely decorative. It is the message that is important, and paying attention to the form may be a distraction.

Of course, for a believer that should be a flimsy argument. Surely God loves beauty and complexity (Gen 1:31, Psalm 139:14), and although beauty is fleeting (Prov. 31:30), that is no excuse to ignore it.1 It does not make sense when Christians stand in awe of a gorgeous sunset, or we all hang the same poem about footprints on our walls, but we cannot be bothered to learn how the Psalms were composed.

Beautiful in any language

The astonishing thing about biblical poetry is that it generally translates into any language. The principal technique is not a matter of meter or rhyme: it has to do with the structure of the lines. In most cases, two or more lines run parallel to each other. Consider Psalm 122:7:

May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.

You can see that the terms run parallel. Peace and security mirror each other, as do the walls and citadels. The name for this type of poetry is Hebrew Parallelism. In what follows, we’ll explore how this poetic technique works and why it matters.

Robert Lowth’s rediscovery of Parallelism

It was the Anglican Bishop Robert Lowth who in the 18th century rediscovered Hebrew Parallelism. For centuries, Christians had been confused about how best to describe biblical poetics. According to Lowth, Hebrew parallelism typically follows one of three patterns:

  • Synonymous
  • Antithetic
  • Synthetic2

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

The example we just looked at is a form of synonymous parallelism. In such cases, the same idea is repeated in similar language. One of the more famous examples of consistent synonymous parallelism is Psalm 114:

When Israel came out of Egypt,
Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,

Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.

The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;

the mountains leaped like rams,
the hills like lambs.

Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Why, Jordan, did you turn back?

Why, mountains, did you leap like rams,
you hills, like lambs?

Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

who turned the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of water.

In this psalm, every verse consists of a mirroring of terms. Lowth felt that parallelism might be compared to the way two choirs can sing back and forth — a type of chant known as antiphony. Lowth speculated that the Jews might have incorporated something similar in their worship. Think of Psalm 136, where the refrain “His love endures forever” is a repeated response.

Lowth’s second type, antithetic parallelism, involves a sharp contrast. It is particularly common in the book of Proverbs:

A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22)

The poor plead for mercy,
but the rich answer harshly. (Prov. 18:23)

The idea is that when we reflect on such contrasts, we can grow in wisdom.

Finally, Lowth used synthetic parallelism as a catch-all category for anything that is not synonymous or antithetic. Synthetic parallelism typically involves a progression of ideas, so that one thing follows another. Take this passage from Psalm 84:

5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

While the end of verse 6 may contain an element of synonymous parallelism, these verses are more about developing an idea. In keeping with the focus on pilgrimage, the emphasis is on movement.

Two of Lowth’s examples of synthetic parallelism eventually came to have their own names. The first is now usually called staircase or climactic parallelism. Psalm 93:3-4 provides a dramatic example:

3 The seas have lifted up, Lord,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.

4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the Lord on high is mighty.

The repetition of phrases (like a staircase) creates a crescendo that builds to a climax. In this passage, we can imagine the waves growing in size!

Another type of synthetic parallelism is commonly called numerical parallelism. This is a poetic use of counting, something that is used to great effect in Amos 1:

3 For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not relent.

The same device occurs four more times in the rest of the chapter.

The Sharpening Theory

Robert Lowth established the basics of Hebrew Parallelism, yet his simple categories were not beyond criticism. Scholars objected that the synthetic category was ill-defined, that the term parallelism may imply too much similarity between the lines, and that parallel structures are not exclusive to poetry, but can be found elsewhere in the Bible as well.

The most forceful critique came in 1981 from James Kugel, the author of The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History.3 Kugel developed what we might call the “Sharpening Theory” of Hebrew Parallelism. To understand what he meant, it is good to reflect on the nature of proverbs.

Proverbs are a bit like riddles. When someone says, “the apple does not fall far from the tree,” it takes us a moment to figure out what that really means. A proverb makes us stop and think. James Kugel points out that in the Bible this quality is sometimes described as a certain sharpness. A proverb pricks our conscience and makes us reflect on the proper way to act. Unfortunately, the fool feels the prick, but does not benefit from it:

Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (Proverbs 26:9)

If we take these observations about proverbs and apply them to Hebrew Parallelism, then we see that the parallel lines also force us to slow down and consider their relationship. At first, we might observe mostly repetition, but a closer look reveals that there is more to the picture. The unique features of each line stand out in sharp relief. This makes reading the Bible exciting. The following verse provides a good example:

Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for;
through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided. (Proverbs 16:6)

Is the same thought expressed twice? Not really. Not only do the lines mention different, yet related actions (love and faithfulness; the fear of the Lord), but the verse makes us contemplate the connection between atonement and avoidance of sin. Atonement might make up for past transgressions, whereas avoidance is about future temptations. In this way, the proverb creates a complex picture that encourages the righteous to live wisely.

Midrash

James Kugel further pointed out that Jewish rabbis who interpreted the Bible preferred to focus on the differences between parallel lines.

In the Jewish tradition, the word Talmud refers to a variety of rabbinic texts that came to supplement the Old Testament books. After the return from exile in Babylon (6th century BC), the Jews increasingly developed an oral tradition that interpreted the Torah (the five books of Moses) and added further regulations and customs. Written compilations of the Talmud stem from as early as the third century AD. The act of interpreting the Talmud and the Bible came to be known as Midrash. This word refers to both rabbinic interpretation and an actual written collection of such interpretations.

Rabbis who practiced Midrash (especially during medieval times) often came up with ingenious ways to contrast poetic lines that seemed to say the same thing. Let’s look at a couple of examples that Kugel provides. First, we read in Genesis 21:1:

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised .

Sounds the same. But at least one commentator suggested that the last “he” might refer to Abraham. A couple of verses earlier (Gen. 20:17), Abraham had prayed on behalf of Abimelek:

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again.

Taking this line into consideration, Gen. 21:1 might be interpreted to mean:

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he, Abraham, had spoken to God about in his prayer, namely to provide fertility.

Suddenly the two lines become quite different in meaning. The second pronoun he now refers to Abraham. Here is another example, from the instructions for Passover celebrations:

Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread. (Deuteronomy 16:3)

A midrashic reading might note that these are two different commandments—a negative and a positive one. Not only must bread with yeast not be eaten, but unleavened bread must be eaten.

It is in part because medieval rabbis were so focused on the differences that a full understanding of Hebrew Parallelism was lost during this time and had to be recovered by scholars such as Robert Lowth. At the same time, the Midrash does remind us not to assume that parallelism is always about exact similarity. The differences are important!

A dynamic movement

Kugel’s Sharpening Theory has us examine each set of parallel lines on its own terms. Instead of reducing parallelism to a few main types, we look for a wide variety of features. For each verse, the question is, how does the second line (B) extend the first (A)? To use Kugel’s wording, it’s not “A=B” but “A, and what’s more, B.” Instead of Lowth’s three main categories, we can now have any number of relationships between A and B. It is up to each reader to meditate carefully on the subtle similarities and differences between the lines.

The scholar Robert Alter, expanding on the work of James Kugel, provides a great description of this relationship between A and B. He talks about a “dynamic movement.”4 The second line should never seem predictable or merely repetitive. There’s something captivating about the way the thought is extended. For Alter, the second line often includes an intensification or focusing of the first thought. You can compare it to seeing something and then getting out the binoculars or microscope to take a closer look. The tricolon (a triple parallelism) in Psalm 100:3 provides a great example:

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Each line zooms in a little. Each line makes the thought more specific. This dynamic movement between the lines requires our participation. As readers, we are drawn into the text.

If that sounds like a lot of work, then recall that Hebrew Parallelism is also quite slow-moving and unhurried. Each idea is expressed in multiple ways. The effect is somewhat like hearing a choir sing in a cathedral, repeating phrases and letting their voices echo through the cavernous space. This is not to say that an Old Testament psalm is like a Bach aria, but that in both cases the speed and cadence is measured and controlled. Important phrases and ideas come back in new form, so that we do not only listen for individual lines, but we also gradually gain a sense of the whole piece.

The big picture

Speaking of the composition as a whole, the final step is to put it all together. It is one thing to spot parallel structures, but it requires more practice to discern how the lines work together.

For example, Psalm 133 has quite a neat and tidy structure, with two similes (verses 2 and 3a) framed by an opening statement (1) and a conclusion (3b):

1 How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.

3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Verse 2 is a great example of what Robert Lowth called staircase parallelism. This technique is all about movement and intensification. Just as the oil runs down the high-priest’s beard, so the lines flow on and on. The liquid imagery is extended in the comparison to dew. Clearly, the author of Psalm 133 thought carefully about best to match the form of the poem to the content. The poetry helps to express the message. In other words, not only should brothers live in harmony, but the psalm itself has to have a sense of “unity.”

Conclusion

In addition to Hebrew Parallelism (the main feature of biblical poetry), God’s Word displays many other poetic techniques (personification, chiasmus, etc.). For a long time, Christians have been content to ignore these features, whereas in reality the beauty of the Bible provides an incredible appeal. Why is a passage such as Isaiah 53 so moving? Why do we memorize Psalm 23 or 103? The poetry in these passages does not detract from the truth of scripture, but makes it resonate in our hearts. I imagine many conversion stories also include an element of awe at the sublimity of Holy Scripture. Mission work is enhanced by bringing out those qualities that make the Bible the Great Book.

I would therefore encourage Christian parents and educators to know the basics of biblical poetry, not only for their own appreciation, but also so they can teach children to marvel at the beauty of the Bible. Psalm 19 describes how the heavens “pour forth speech” (verse 3), before adding, paradoxically, “They have no speech, they use no words; / no sound is heard from them.” Creation can speak of the glory of God, without using actual words. Indeed, we teach children that Nature displays God’s goodness and faithfulness. But Psalm 19 points out that God’s Word (the “law”) is likewise worth meditating on, and it does contain words and speech. The “precepts of the Lord” are “sweeter than honey” and give “light to the eyes.” The fact that the Psalmist used paradoxes, metaphors, and parallelism to describe his delight in the Word can only mean that biblical poetry is an equally nourishing and eye-opening experience. So, take the time to study and appreciate the poetry of the Bible, not just to know why some lines are indented on the page, but to truly savour the divine artistry of the Word.

Dr. Conrad van Dyk is Professor of English at Concordia University of Edmonton, where he teaches everything from medieval literature to children’s classics. Recently he has started creating online literary courses from a Christian perspective (and for a reasonable price). The very first course is a detailed introduction to biblical poetry which you can find at LitCompanion.com. Portions of this course have been used in this article. He attends Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church in Edmonton.

Endnotes

1) Quotations from the Bible are from the NIV, with one exception. For Psalm 133, I have reintroduced the word “brothers.”

2) I have used G. Gregory’s English translation (1753) of Robert Lowth’s On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, which is freely available online.

3) See James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (Yale UP, 1981). The examples of Midrash are taken from Kugel, pp. 98-106; the discussion of how A and B relate can be found on p. 8. Kugel’s ideas were developed by S. E. Gilllingham, The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford UP, 1994), who suggests that we tend to see three patterns of parallelism, i.e., A=B (comparison and contrast), A>B (the second line is subordinated to the first), and A<B (where the second line develops the first, for example through intensification or comparison). A summary of Gillingham’s approach can be found in William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 289ff. Personally, I prefer Kugel’s less formulaic approach, where each set of lines is treated on its own terms.

4) Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985), p. 10.

Christian education

Why study History?

Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. – Psalm 78:3-4 ***** History is important for day-to-day life in ways that most of us don’t know. A shared history unifies communities, and knowing history can inspire individuals to be better people because they can learn from previous generations what to do and what to watch out for. Recently history professor John Fea of Messiah College in Pennsylvania wrote a book about the importance of history called Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. While an aim of the book was to encourage college students to major in history, what he shares would be beneficial to all Christians. Shared history binds us together Fea points out that historical accounts are important to the identity of communities: “We need the stories of our past to sustain us as a people. History is the glue that holds communities and nations together.” The history of our community (whether as a church, ethnic group, or political unit) creates a perception of shared experience with other members of our community. This helps to bind us to one another. The kind of experience we share with other community members will be influenced by how its history is presented. In a national context, competing groups may emphasize different aspects of the past and thus offer different versions of history. In the United States, disputes of this nature have arisen in public schools. Fea writes, “The battle over what American schoolchildren learn about the nation’s past has been a significant part of the ongoing culture wars in this country.” “Past” versus “history” Fea makes an distinction between what he calls “the past” and “history.” The past consists of all the events that have occurred before the present time. This includes the dates and facts about what happened. History, on the other hand, involves the creation of a narrative using information about the past. History is always written by a person, and each historian has to determine which information from the past is important and how it fits together. In this sense, history always involves an interpretive framework provided by the historian – all history is written from a particular perspective or worldview. The right worldview is key That being the case, it is very important to determine whether or not a particular historian works within a good worldview. For example, when a Marxist writes a history of the sixteenth century, he sees economic forces as the primary factors leading to the origin and success of the Reformation. He will discount the specifically “religious” aspects of the Reformation as window dressing for the real action which he believes is in the economic sphere. The Marxist does not even believe in God, so how could he attribute any facet of the Reformation to spiritual activity? It’s completely outside the realm of possibility in his worldview. Thus a Marxist interpretation of the sixteenth century will inevitably miss the most important aspect of the Reformation, namely, the work of God in restoring His truth to the church. A Reformed historian will look at exactly the same information as the Marxist and see an entirely different picture. The Reformed historian will focus on the religious and spiritual nature of the Reformation. Economic forces do matter at various points throughout history but they cannot account for genuine spiritual occurrences and the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people. While there are many learned and thoughtful historians of various persuasions who have written important books, if they didn’t approach history from a Biblical Christian perspective it is possible that they missed important features of their subject. Like a Reformed historian, a Roman Catholic historian may also see the Reformation within a spiritual context. However, his analysis would likely be the opposite of the Reformed view. To him or her, the Reformation involved a schism from the true church. Clearly, the perspective held by any historian will provide the interpretive framework through which he or she evaluates the past. All historians operate within a particular worldview that determines what they will consider to be worthy of including in their account. Leftwing history Leftwing historians, often known as “progressive historians,” understand the importance of history in the life of a community. They also understand the power of historical interpretation as a method of promoting political change. Particular historical accounts can be used as the justification for political action. As a result, they interpret history through an especially leftwing framework as a means to advocate for socialist solutions. Fea explains: As these historians began to speak out against the injustices that they saw in society, they began to articulate a method of approaching the past that was concerned less with objectivity and more with activism. They looked to the past for antecedents to contemporary social problems that might help point the world in the right direction. Their accounts of American history, therefore, focus on the negative aspects and largely ignore the positive aspects. Fea notes, “They wrote books calling attention to the nation’s long history of injustice. Such works were largely one-sided, but that was the point.” If the United States is historically based on racist oppression and capitalist exploitation of the poor, then the way to improve it is through socialism. Government planners can enforce “social justice” through state coercion. This is the leftwing ideal, and it appears more plausible when backed by historical arguments about pervasive evil in the nation’s past. If individual freedom has led to oppression and exploitation, then it must be sacrificed to government control in order to achieve justice. History motivating politics In other words, a particular historical perspective becomes the underlying basis for an associated political agenda. History conducted in this way provides the driving force for a program of political change. The example of the “progressive historians” demonstrates the use of history in a powerful and negative way. But history can also be used to undergird a positive agenda. Fea points out that some American Christians have written history books to boost the case for Christian political activism. For example, if Christianity held a privileged position in earlier periods of American political life (and it did), then Christianity should not be expelled from American political life today. However, Fea also notes that some of these efforts by Christians have been so lopsided as to turn history into political propaganda, much like the progressive historians have done. This is certainly an error to avoid, but it does not discount the possibility of the proper use of history to buttress Christian activism in the culture wars. Sanctification Besides the political role of history mentioned above, history can also motivate us to improve ourselves as individuals. As Fea explains it, The past has the power to stimulate us, fill us with emotion, and arouse our deepest convictions about what is good and right. When we study inspirational figures of the past, we often connect with them through time and leave the encounter wanting to be better people or perhaps even continue their legacy of reform, justice, patriotism, or heroism. Used in this way, history can actually be an aid in sanctification. Conclusion History is important for the role it plays in binding communities together and in motivating political action. It can also help to encourage individuals to improve themselves or inspire them to become involved in a cause. The value of particular historical accounts will be heavily influenced by the perspective of the writer of the account. Only a Christian historian can truly appreciate the role of God in history. It’s hard to love something you know little about. Learning the history of your country can help you to love your country. Learning the history of your church may help you to appreciate your church more too. Whatever the case, it is certain that studying history is a valuable activity. This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition....

Christian education

Should a student’s peer group be so important?

…or can skipping or failing a grade be a very good thing? **** Let me tell you the tale of four students. Danny The first, Danny, had decided to better himself and become more flexible in the job market, given the prevalent economic uncertainty. So he went to the website of the Open University and looked for a course package that would appeal to him. After due consideration, he decided on a subject, whereupon he proceeded with his enrolment. The course involved a number of challenging assignments, all accompanied by due dates, and length and formatting requirements. Danny was not fazed. Full of enthusiasm, he started on the course work. He industriously complied with all the required readings, studied the assignment requirements, and set to work. Long before the deadline he finished the first homework assignment and sent it away. It was less than a week later that he received word back: he had failed his first assignment. Failed miserably. However, the kind lecturer gave many tips as to how to improve the work for resubmission. Disappointed, but not down, Danny set to work again. He carefully followed the lecturer’s suggestions and, with hope in his heart, resubmitted. The result, though slightly better, was still disappointment – Danny hadn’t passed, even on his second attempt. Danny was thoroughly disheartened. After honest and deep contemplation, he decided that he had overreached and that he needed to bite the bullet and quit. Perhaps he should have another look at the courses and take on something more realistic and in keeping with his current abilities… Shaun and Emily The family of little Shaun and Emily moved to a new district. The 7 and 9-year-old embarked on theadventure of a new school. They were kindly received, then tested on their abilities, and placed in a classroom with their peers. It was not long before both children became unhappy and unruly. Shaun could not care less whether he did his homework or not. Emily did not have any homework, because she finished everything in school time. She saidschool was boring. Meetings between the teachers and parents followed. It was agreed that Shaun struggled and required some remedial help. Emily needed no help at all; perhaps she could be given some extra work, expanding her challenges in that manner. The teachers would do their best, but with the large number of students in their care, it would be difficult. At the end of the year, Shaun was promoted to the next grade, even though his progress reports showed failure after failure. Emily was promoted as well, with straight A’s all over her list. Both children looked forward to the summer holidays and nagged their parents for a different school come the new year. The new school year commenced, and the children joined their peers. Shaun was looking at another year of discouragement and remedial treatment. Emily’s motivation was also at a low and she decided to do just what was necessary to get by… When peers aren’t the main concern, then ability can be Peers were not a concern for Danny so when he noticed his course was above his ability; he could simply quit it. He could adjust and find something more suitable. Shaun and Emily were locked in a system from which there was no escape. Shaun was forced to endure the ignominy of failure after failure; Emily was exposed to what she called “kindergarten material” which she considered humiliatingly unchallenging. However, as the Principal pointed out, it was important to keep the children in their peer groups. It would not do to place them with those older or younger than they, as this would stunt their emotional development. Caleb Now meet Caleb (not his real name). He was brought to this little Christian school. Dad and Mum said that Caleb was a problem student in his current school and did not perform well at all. In fact, the larger part of the day he was forced to reside outside the classroom. On his report card the teacher had written about his reading skills that Caleb needed to guess more! Caleb did not want to guess, he wanted to read! This nine-year-old was by now on the level of a six-year-old student, even though there was nothing wrong with his cerebral capabilities. He did not like school anymore. “And then to think how he started so full of enthusiasm,” Mum remarked. The long and short of it was that the Principal and the parents agreed that Caleb would start according to ability with the little ones, moving between different groups fluidly to tap into his present abilities. Being more mature, he would succeed at a faster pace and consequently move through the ranks ever more closely to his peers, all the while tasting academic success. Caleb finished high school within a year of his peers and went on to do a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at university. As an adult he wrote on Facebook how that little Christian school and its teaching approach had been the saving of him in terms of developing his abilities. Caleb was not forced to sit in class with his peers and be confronted with repeat failure. He was not singled out for remedial (often sensed as humiliating) lessons. He was successful in class and was able to join his peers outside class when playing games (during PE lessons he did join his peers, by the way, and outshone most of them). Why have we made this the priority? In Matthew 23:4 the Lord Jesus accuses the Pharisees of putting heavy and grievous burdens on the people with rules and regulations that they themselves wouldn’t bear. This text had me wondering if, educationalists – with the best of intentions – have placed burdens upon children that they would not place upon themselves! (We can think also of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12.) An adult who enters on a course of study will do so within his capabilities. Should there be an error of judgment, the course will be discontinued and, perhaps, a more suitable one entertained. School children, as a rule, are not given that choice in the traditional system. We’ve deemed it as the first priority that they mingle with peers, even when they are to concentrate on cerebral pursuits. And we’ve done so, knowing that intellectually mismatched children who are being set the same challenges can be a hindrance to each other in class time! The discouraged girls might skulk away, or a frustrated boy resort to bravado, while the capable students are irritated by unwanted distractions. The net result is a teacher with a classroom harboring behavioral challenges. When considering the eagerness of the little five-year-olds upon entering “the big school,” it is a shame upon the education system to erode this eagerness by providing systemic failure on the one hand and systemic boredom on the other. Success is achieved by enabling children to punch according to their weight, not above their weight, or below their weight. A good school will strive to place just the right expectation (burden) upon each child’s shoulders, in keeping with capability and maturity, regardless of age. I would submit that many schools, including several Christian schools, unwittingly create educationally disenchanted children with the misguided concept of peer group education, and procuring motivation-eroded people. “One may miss the mark by aiming too high as too low.” -Thomas Fuller (English clergyman, 1608-1661) Dr. Herm Zandman has been both a schoolteacher and truck driver, writing on both, including his book “Blood, Sweat, and Gears.” A version of this article first appeared in the July 25, 2020 issue of Una Sancta. Questions for discussion Dr. Zandman raises the issue of age-based grades and how among adults we based schooling on ability, rather than age. It’s a topic seldom discussed, so to foster that discussion here are a few questions intended for a group setting. Peers, and fitting in, are the reason most kids don’t want to skip or be held back a grade. But this grouping-by-year exists only in school and disappears soon afterward. So are there ways that we can diminish the importance of this artificial grouping? Would skipping a grade be less of a big deal if we did it more often? How could we foster a school environment in which a student, held back a grade, isn’t worried about what his friends will say? In our churches, homeschooling is often viewed as an abandonment of the local covenantal school (which needs as many supporters as it can get). But homeschooling seems to better be able to accommodate children based on their abilities, rather than age. So for the sake of the students who don’t fit into age-based grades, do we need to re-evaluate our attitude towards homeschooling? After all, do our schools exist for the children, or are we now having to send our children for the school’s sake? Parents are ultimately in charge of their child’s education so what are ways that parents can add to the weight their child bears, should that be needed? Is it a matter of extra-curriculars like music lessons and art classes, or a part-time job, or even starting their own “side hustle”? What other options are possible? What are the historic roots of the grade-by-grade schooling that we do? In times past children in one-room schoolhouses might be taught via their “readers.” They would move on to the next level – the next reader – when they were done the previous one. But now age-based grades are the near-universal approach, also in our Christian schools. Seeing as this approach can’t be found in the Bible, might it be worth a reassessment? Are there other possibilities? Is what happened with Caleb, as Dr. Zandman described it, an option that exists in our schools? ...

Christian education

A Christian perspective on 2+2

What does math have to do with God? Many people see no connection. Aren't logic, numbers and geometry the same for Christians and atheists? Math is thought to be the hardest subject to integrate with Christianity. Yet, there are very close links between math and God. Mathematical realism The key question concerns truth. Most mathematicians believe that mathematical truths such as "6+1=7" are universally and eternally true, independent of human minds. They believed that they are discovering properties of, say, numbers, rather than merely inventing them. This view of math dates back to Pythagoras (582-507 BC) and Plato (427-347 BC). They held that mathematical concepts apply best to ideal objects. For example, geometry deals with exact circles, but no physical object is exactly circular – perfect circles don’t actually exist. Furthermore, such things as the number "7" seem to exist at all times or, even, beyond time. This led to the notion that math exists in an ideal world of eternal truth. This is called mathematical realism. Where do such eternal mathematical truths exist? Augustine (354-430) placed the ideal world of eternal truths in the mind of God. He argued that eternal truths could not arise from material things or finite human minds. Rather, mathematical truths must depend on a universal and unchanging Mind that embraces all truth. Only God can have such a mind. Thus math was held to be true because of its supposed divine origin. It was held, moreover, that God created the universe according to a rational plan that used math. Since man's was created in the image of God, it was thought that man should be able to discern the mathematical structure of creation. Indeed, since man was God's steward over creation, man had the duty to study nature and to apply the results towards the glory of God and the benefit of man. Such theological considerations were key factors motivating the scientific revolution. Most founders of modern science, such Kepler, Galileo and Newton, were all driven by their Biblical worldview. Naturalist math Ironically, the very success of mathematical science led to the demise of the Christian view. The universe seemed to be so well controlled by mathematically formulated laws that God was no longer deemed necessary. Such over-confidence in scientific laws led to a denial of biblical miracles. This undermined biblical authority. Consequently, many scientists banished God and embraced naturalism, the notion that nothing exists beyond nature. THE LOSS OF CERTAINTY With the rejection of a divine Mind, there was no longer any place for eternal truth. This, in turn, led to the collapse of mathematical realism. Naturalists came to consider math as just a human invention. But if math is just a human invention, why should it be true? Mathematicians tried to prove the truth of math using the axiomatic method. Math was to be grounded on a set of undoubtedly true, self-evident principles, called axioms, from which everything else could be derived. The axiomatic method had been used with great success by the Greek mathematician Euclid (circa 300 BC). He derived all the truths about normal (or Euclidean) geometry from only 10 axioms. This became the model for the rest of math. Towards the end of the 19th century the search was on for a set of self-evident axioms upon which all of math could be based. Any system that yields a contradiction is, of course, false. A system of axioms that will never yield a contradiction is said to be consistent. A system is said to be complete if all true theorems (and no false ones) can be derived from the axioms. The goal, then, was to find a set of axioms that could be proven to be consistent and complete for all of math. Initially, there was some success. Simple logic and Euclidean geometry were proven to be both consistent and complete. Unfortunately, in 1931 the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel proved that the program was doomed. He proved that any large system of axioms (i.e., large enough for arithmetic with addition and multiplication) will always be incomplete.  There will always be theorems that can be neither proven nor disproven by the system. Thus all of math can never be based on a finite set of axioms. Math will always be larger than our human attempts to capture it within a system of axioms. Moreover, Gödel proved also that we can never mathematically prove the consistency of any system large enough for arithmetic. Hence we cannot be sure of the validity of arithmetic, even though we use it all the time! The soundness of math now had to be accepted largely on faith. THE LIMITS OF INVENTION Rejecting theism affected not only the soundness of math but also its content. Classical math was based on the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and infinite Ideal Mathematician. The operations and proofs allowed in classical math were those that could in principle be done by God. It was thought that, if math is just a human invention, its methods should be adjusted accordingly. Only those mathematical concepts and proofs were to be considered valid that could be mentally constructed in a finite number of explicit steps. The "there exists" of classical math was to be replaced by "we can construct." This came to be known as constructive math. It entailed a new approach to both logic and proofs. Classical math is based on what is called two-valued logic. Any mathematical proposition is either true or false. Take, for example, Goldbach's Conjecture concerning primes. A prime is a number that is divisible only by itself and 1 (e.g., 2,3,5,7 & 11 are the first five primes). Goldbach's Conjecture asserts that any even number can be written as the sum of two primes (e.g., 10=3+7; 20=13+7). No one has ever found a number for which it did not hold. But no one has as yet been able to prove it. Classically, this conjecture is either true or false, even though we do not yet know which it is. Constructionists, however insist that there is a third possibility: a proposition is neither true nor false until we can construct an actual, finite proof. The rejection of two-valued logic restricts one's ability to prove theorems. Classical math often uses an indirect method of proof called Proof by Contradiction. To proof a theorem, one first assumes the theorem to be false and shows that this leads to a contradiction; hence the initial assumption is false, which means that the theorem is true. Since such proofs rely on two-valued logic, constructionists reject them. They accept only those theorems that can be directly derived from the axioms. Unhappily, this means rejecting so many results of classical math that one lacks the sophisticated math needed in modern physics. EVOLUTIONARY CONJECTURES If math is just a human invention how did it ever get started? Naturalists propose that evolution has hard-wired our brains to contain small numbers (e.g., 1,2,3…) as well as a basic ability to add and subtract. They conjecture that all our mathematical thoughts come from purely physical connections between neurons. Even if an evolutionary struggle for survival could account for an innate ability for simple arithmetic, it is hard to see where more advanced math comes from. Our ability for advanced math is well in advance of mere survival skills. The evolutionary approach fails to explain also the amazing mathematical intuition of leading mathematicians. Further, if our mathematical ideas are just the result of the physics of neural connections, why should they be true? Such accounts of math cannot distinguish true results from false ones. Indeed, if all knowledge is based on neural connections, so is the idea that all knowledge is based on neural connections. Hence, if true, we have no basis for believing it to be true. In spite of naturalist objections, most mathematicians remain realists. They view new theorems as discoveries rather than inventions. The excitement of exploring an objective mathematical universe is a powerful incentive for research. Realism explains why mathematicians widely separated in space, time, and culture end up with the same mathematical results. Moreover, if math is just a human invention, why is it so applicable to the physical world? Math is indispensable for science. Further, if math is a human invention, one might ask: how did math exist before Adam? Are we to believe that "2+2=4" did not hold, so that two pairs of apples did not add up to four? Christianity and math How does math fits within a Christian worldview? The Bible tells us that man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-30). The divine image included not only righteousness but also rationality and creativity. This involves the capacity for abstract thought, as well as the ability to reason, to discern and to symbolize. Man was created with the innate potential to do math, to help fulfill his role as God's steward (Gen. 1:28). Adam could have confidence in his mental abilities because God created these to function properly. He was the result of God's purposeful plan rather than an evolutionary accident. With Adam's fall into sin, man lost much of his original image. Yet, man's mathematical ability is still largely functional. It seems that we are born with various basic, innate mathematical abilities such as those of logic, counting and distinguishing shapes. JUSTIFYING MATH How can we justify human math from this basis? One could try to ground the soundness of math on the Bible. After all, the Bible frequently uses logical arguments (e.g., I Cor. 15:12-50 or Matt. 12:25-29) and arithmetic operations (e.g., Luke 12:52). Gordon Clark claimed that all the laws of logic could be deduced from the Bible. Similarly, J.C. Keister asserted that all the axioms of arithmetic are illustrated in Scripture. Although such biblical examples may confirm our rules of arithmetic and logic, they fall short of rigorous proof. One must be careful in drawing general conclusions from a limited number of specific cases. Moreover, this method gives no basis for the vast bulk of math that extends beyond basic arithmetic and logic. A better approach might be to ground the truth of math on the attributes of the biblical God. For example, God's character has a logical aspect. God's word is truth (John 17:17); God never lies (Titus 1:2) and is always faithful (Ps. 117:2). God means what he says, not the opposite; hence the law of non-contradiction holds. God's identity is eternally the same; hence the logical law of identity must be eternally valid. Thus the very nature of God implies the eternal and universal validity of the laws of logic. Logic is not above God, but derives from God's constant and non-contradictory nature. God's character also has a numerical aspect: the Biblical God is tri-une, consisting of three distinct persons. Since the three persons of the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are eternal, so are numbers. Consider further God's infinite power and knowledge. God knows all things. This includes not just all facts about the physical world but also all necessary truths and even all possibilities. As such, God's knowledge surely embraces all possible mathematical truths. Thus math exists independent of human minds. God surely knows whether any proposition is true or false. Hence the usage of two-valued logic in math is justified. God is the source of all being, upholding everything. He even establishes necessary truths and contingent possibilities. God upholds all truths, including truths about math. God surely knows whether any mathematical proposition is true or false. God's knowledge includes that of the actual infinite. The concept of infinity is crucial to the philosophy of math. We can distinguish between potential infinity and actual infinity. Potential infinity is the notion of endlessness that arises from counting. Given any large number, we can always obtain a yet larger one by adding 1 to it. There seems to be no largest number. Potentially we could go on forever. Actual infinity, on the other hand, is the notion that the set of numbers exists as a completed set. Augustine, however, considered actual infinity to be one of the mathematical entities that existed in God's mind. He wrote, "Every number is known to him 'whose understanding cannot be numbered' (Ps. 147:5)." Since God knows all things possible, this must surely encompass also the totality of all possible numbers. A BASIS FOR MATH Modern math is based on set theory. A set is a collection of objects. We can consider the set of all dogs, or the set of all even numbers, and so on. We use brackets {} to denote a set. Thus, for example, the set of even numbers is written {2,4,6...}. Treating each set as an entity in its own right, we can then do various operations on these sets, such as adding sets, comparing their sizes, etc. Remarkably, almost all advanced math can be derived from the nine axioms of modern set theory. Not all math, since Gödel proved that all of math can never be derived from a limited number of axioms. Yet, it does cover all of the math that most mathematicians ever use in practice. So far no contradictions have been found. Can we be sure, however, that no contradictions will ever be found in this system? Gödel, you will recall, proved that it cannot be proven mathematically that the system is consistent. The best we can do is to appeal to the plausibility of the individual axioms. Everyone agrees that the axioms all seem to be self-evidently true when applied to finite sets. Several of these axioms, however, deal with infinite sets. They postulate that certain operations on finite sets apply also to infinite sets. Infinite sets are needed to get beyond number theory (which just concerns whole numbers) to real numbers (such as √2 = 1.414213..., which requires an infinite number of decimals to write out fully). Real numbers are needed for calculus, upon which physics heavily relies. The axioms concerning infinite sets are rejected by constructionists since infinite sets cannot be humanly constructed in a finite number of steps. However, these axioms are very plausible given an infinite, omniscient and omnipotent being. Georg Cantor (1845-1918), the founder of modern set theory, justified his belief in infinite sets by his belief in an infinite God. He thought of sets in terms of what God could do with them. Cantor believed that God's infinite knowledge implies an actual infinity of thoughts. It included, at the very least, the infinite set of natural numbers {1,2,3...}. Actual infinity could thus be considered to exist objectively as an actual, complete set in God's mind. Cantor believed that even larger infinite numbers existed in God's mind. Even today, almost every attempt to justify the principles of set theory relies on some notion of idealized abilities of the Omnipotent Mathematician. The existence of sets depends upon a certain sort of intellectual activity - a collecting or "thinking together." According to Alvin Plantinga, "If the collecting or thinking together had to be done by human thinkers there wouldn't be nearly enough sets - not nearly as many as we think in fact there are. From a theistic point of view, sets owe their existence to God's thinking things together." Plantinga grounds set theory on God's infinite power and knowledge. He concludes that theists thus have a distinct advantage in justifying set theory. A detailed theistic justification of modern set theory has been developed by Christopher Menzel (2001). Ultimately, the consistency and certainty of math can be grounded upon the multi-faceted nature of God Himself. Trust in God generates confidence in math. Bibliography John Byl’s The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning (2004) Christopher Menzel’s "God and Mathematical Objects" in Mathematics in a Postmodern Age: A Christian Perspective (2001) edited by Russell W. Howell & W. James Bradley Nickel, James Nickel’s Mathematics: Is God Silent? (2001) Alvin Plantinga’s "Prologue: Advice to Christian Philosophers" in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy (1990) edited by Michael D. Beaty Vern Poythress’ "A Biblical View of Mathematics" in Foundations of Christian Scholarship (1976) edited by Gary North This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Reformed Perspective under the title, "A Christian perspective on math." Dr. John Byl is the author of "God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe" and "The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning." He blogs at Bylogos.blogspot.com Some guidelines in teaching math  The goal of Reformed education is to prepare students to serve the Lord (I Cor. 10:3). This entails teaching them to think and function within a Christian worldview. In any discipline one must teach not only the subject matter but how this coheres with other disciplines and finds meaning within the Christian worldview. God's truth functions as a comprehensive unity. Math should thus be taught in terms of various contexts. 1. Mathematical Context In addition to mathematical knowledge we should instill insight into why math works, an appreciation of its beauty and a love for math. 2. Theological Context Math must be connected to the Christian worldview. We should show how Christianity explains mathematical truth, the rational structure of the universe, and our ability to do math. Studying math should be motivated by the love of God and directed to His glory. Studying math tells us something about God (e.g., His wisdom, coherence, boundlessness, consistency, dependability, righteousness). 3. Applied Context We should illustrate how math is an important tool for other disciplines, such as science. Math helps us to fulfill the cultural mandate and to more deeply appreciate God’s wonderful world. We should stress both the strengths and limits of mathematical models: these have to be applied and interpreted in ways that are consistent with Scripture. More generally, math helps to develop logical thinking and analytical problem-solving abilities, skills that are useful in all facets of life. 4. Social context Math teaching can be enriched by linking topics to their historical-cultural context. One could tell interesting anecdotes about pertinent mathematicians, touching also upon their religious motivation. This will bolster also the theological context since Christianity played a large role in the scientific revolution and since most leading mathematicians  (e.g., Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Euler, Cantor, Gödel) were theists....

Christian education

Learning like an adult

When school is done your education isn't ***** Students sometimes talk of graduation as being set free. We might be able to empathize, even as this prison-break analogy isn’t that complimentary to the “prison guards” who have been teaching you these last 12 years. But let’s run with that idea for a moment. If graduation means freedom, what will you now be free to do? You’ll be free to never open a book again – you won’t have to read again if you don’t want to. But we all should want to. The freedom a graduate has is not a freedom to avoid, but a freedom to take on. It is a freedom to be able to direct your ongoing education wherever you want it to go. So, instead of a prison-break analogy, it’d be better to compare your education up to this point as being like a car ride. Early on, you were in a booster seat in the back, a little kid along for the ride, going wherever others decided to take you. God gifted you with some great guides so you’ve been taken to some fantastic destinations. But in these early years where you were going was decided mostly for you. As you got older, you started switching seats in the vehicle, moving up towards that front row. More recently, you’ve gotten to practice steering and choosing your own roads, though still with some adult supervision. Finally, when you graduate you’re going to be able to slip into the driver’s seat where you will have the freedom to go where you want to go. And along with that freedom will come the responsibility to make good decisions, make good time, and make sure you actually get where you want to go. To push the analogy, when you graduate and slip into that driver’s seat you will also be free to pull over, shut off the car, and put the whole thing up on blocks. You can make the decision to never learn again. But why would you? There’s a world out there to explore, contend with, and conquer, all to the glory of God. It is our calling and our privilege to go out and investigate sunrises, caterpillars, hummingbirds, craft beers, and whether there really is a better ice cream flavor than peanut butter chocolate. Out in the world some might think that once they’ve graduated they can sit back, relax, take a long snooze, and be done with learning forever. But not God’s people. We know this is only the beginning and we can’t wait to get out there. So what we want to look at is how to learn like an adult; we want to look at what it takes to be a life long learner. And we’ll do so by hitting three points: 1) Why we should be life-long learners 2) The qualities of a life-long learner 3) How to learn on your own WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE LIFE LONG LEARNERS When we’re setting out to do something, it’s always helpful to know the why behind the what. So why exactly should we all be life long learners? 1. Because God calls us to it As David Mathis notes, “Teaching and learning are at the very heart of our faith. To be a ‘disciple’ means to be a ‘learner.’” We serve an infinite God who invites us to know Him better (2 Peter 3:18) through His Creation and through His Word. Because He is infinite, we’re never going run out of glories to uncover, and depths to dig into. But not all of us enjoyed the classroom setting so do we have to be bookworms and academic sorts to learn more about God? Well, reading one book is an absolute must. God has revealed Himself in His Word, and if we refuse to open the Bible, then we’re showing we’re really not that interested in Him. But that doesn’t mean to be Christian you have to have been the sort who got straight A’s in all your. God promises to reveal Himself to any and all who seek Him (Deut. 4:29, Jer. 29:13, Is 55:6). In Psalm 32:8 the Lord promises: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you.” God is for everyone, no matter our grades. 2. To prep ourselves for the challenges ahead In Proverbs God tells us that instruction is more valuable than silver, knowledge better than choice gold, wisdom better than jewels (8:10-11). And in contrast he tells us that those who “despise wisdom and instruction” are fools (1:7). One reason we want to be life-long learners is because we’re going to be faced with a lifetime of challenges. We can take them on all on our own, or if we’re smart, we can ask for help. God gave us His Word, and He gave us brothers and sisters – both those alive today, and others who have long since passed on, but who can be consulted via the books they wrote – who we can ask for guidance. The devil has a lot of tricks, but he always recycling old ones, so when we “talk” with folks who have gone before, we can learn from them how they took on challenges an increasingly hostile government, or what advice they gave on leading your family in devotions, or what passages of the Bible they most often turned to for encouragement. If you’re looking to learn then you can benefit from the lifetime of experience your parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, older siblings, elders and godly neighbors have lived and are ready to offer. You can learn from them, imitating them in their godliness, and also save yourself some pain by learning from their mistakes…instead of having to make all the same ones yourself. 3. To help and instruct others Do you feel ready to teach your children how to pray? Do you know how to share with others the hope that is in? Are you ready to be an elder and go on home visits counseling younger couples on marital difficulties? Can you advise your congregation’s younger women how they can better love their husbands? If you’re asked, “Why should I be a Christians?” or “Why do you believe the Bible” or “Why do Christians hate homosexuals?” do you have a ready answer? Do you know how often and for what you should spank an errant child? Have you figured out how much to save for retirement? There’s a lot to know so what a wonderful blessing it is when you’re younger that you have an older generation you can turn to for advice and instruction. But not too long from now, and maybe its already happening now, you’ll have people looking to you for advice. Maybe right now you can still rely on the older generation to do some heavy lifting, leading the fight, and all that. But at some point you are going to have to replace your parents. At some point you’re going to be the older generation. And wisdom doesn’t just come with grey hair. If you’re going to be a help to anyone, if you’re going to be a leader for your family, and in your church, you need to be learning how to do so now. QUALITIES OF A LIFE LONG LEARNER As we set out to become life-long learners, what sort of qualities should we be encouraging and developing in ourselves? 1. Go to the ant One quality to start with is to ant-like. In the book of Proverbs two bad guys pop up repeatedly: the fool and the sluggard. The difference between the two comes down to how active they are: the fool mocks and scoffs God’s law; if God says to do one thing, then the fool does the very opposite. Sometimes we can be troublemakers like this, but the more probable temptation for us is probably the sluggardly tendency. The sluggard doesn’t cause much trouble because he doesn’t do much of anything at all. His days are filled with Netflix binges, and long hours with his phone, whether that’s on Instagram or Snapchat, or endlessly checking the latest sports scores. In Proverbs 6 Solomon tells this sluggard sort to “go to the ant” for inspiration and see how “it has no commander, no overseer or ruler” and yet there it is working hard. Nobody is telling it what to do. It’s just going out and doing it all on its own initiative. This same advice is repeated other ways in Proverbs – in 3:3 we’re told to actively tie mercy and truth around our necks and write them on a tablet in our heart. Being ant-like means being self-directed and actively choosing to do what’s right.A life-long learner won’t drift, won’t make dents in the couch. He’ll decide what destination he’s heading for, and then plot out the steps it will take to get there from here. 2. Humble enough to seek correction A life long learner also needs to be humble. In Proverbs, Solomon makes this point repeatedly: the wise love correction, and the fool hates it. Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he hates reproof is stupid – 12:1 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence – 15:32 Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; Teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning 9:9 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction – 1:7 Again and again, we’re told, wise/righteous sorts love correct and fools hate it. So which are you? Well, seeing as we’re still this side of heaven, all of us are a mix, maybe really good at taking feedback in one area, and in another, we just don’t want to hear what others have to say. But if you look at something you’re really good at, it’s like this is an area where you welcomed feedback. I just found out that one of my uncles who has been playing organ all his life just signed up for organ lessons again. He’s still looking for correction and instruction because he wants to get better. I make my living as a writer, and I think my English teachers must have still gets the giggles every time they get another issue of the magazine – in high school I didn’t have obvious natural talents in wordsmithery. But I’ve gotten good at what I do precisely because this is an area I have frequently sought, and most often gratefully received correction. If you want to get good at something, you need to be humble. It gets harder to take correction when we tie our own personal worth into something. I’ve coached kids at basketball, and if a kid really identified as being a basketball player, that sometimes made it harder for them to take feedback from their coach – correction was taken as an attack on their self-worth. I know how that feels. Parenting is one of the bigger challenges I face, and when one of my kids publicly misbehaves, that is humbling, because then everyone can see I’m not doing the greatest job here – I want them to believe I’m a good parent, and I feel embarrassed when I get revealed as having some troubles. But I’m not going to get better if I don’t go looking for help. I am not a perfect parent, but I can be a godly one, trying, failing, repenting, and then assured of forgiveness, trying again. A life long learner needs to be humble enough to seek and appreciate correction. 3. The “Wow!” factor A life long learner will also foster their sense of awe. As kids, we’d see a dandelion and in delight pluck it, blow, and watch all the white parachutes float up and away. As adults we see a dandelion and we just wonder where we’ve put the weed-killer. For many adults, the only time that child-like sense of wonder kicks back in is when a baby is born: all those tiny toes and fingers wriggling gets our jaw to drop. But isn’t an adult every bit as miraculous as a baby? And yet, somehow we’ve become blind to walking in amongst all these miracles. In Notes from the Tilt-A-WhirlNate Wilson reminds us of what we’re overlooking. Our world, he writes, is the kind of place “…where water in the sky turns into beautifully symmetrical crystal flakes sculpted by artists unable to stop themselves (in both design and quantity). The kind of place with tiny, powerfully jawed mites assigned to the carpets to eat my dead skin as it flakes off. The kind with sharks, and nose leeches, and slithery parasitic things (with barbs) that will swim up you like a urinary catheter if only you oblige by peeing in a South American river. The kind with people who kill and people who love and people who do both. The kind with people who think water from the Ganges is good for them and people who think eating the heart of their enemy will ward off death, and others who think they can cure their own failing brains if only they harvest enough uncommitted cells from human young. This work is beautiful but badly broken. St. Paul said that it groans, but I love it even as its groaning….I love the world as it is because I love what it will be.” If we’re not amazed, it’s only because we’re not paying attention. So let’s start. LEARNING ON OUR OWN So a life-long learner will appreciate wonder, appreciate correction, and appreciate ants too. That’s why we should be life long learners, and what a life long learner should look like. But how do we actually go about learning on our own? Here are three suggestions. 1. Pick good teachers A life long learner has to pick good teachers. I remember reading, some years back, about a pastor’s wife who wanted to find out what the Bible said about homosexuality. She began her study by reading everything she could by “Christian” homosexuals – for two years she read only what they wrote on the topic, and it was only afterward that she started reading anything by orthodox Christians. B y then it was too late; she wasn’t willing to hear what the Bible really said. As Solomon explains in Proverbs “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (13:20) and “Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge” (14:7). Or to put it more colloquially, “You are what you eat.” After that steady diet of trash, she’d made herself incapable of appreciating solid food. When you’re at a Christian school your teachers have largely been chosen for you, but even then, with all the information coming at you from your phone, you make some choices about what sort of teachers you’ll have. So what kind of a diet are you ingesting? Do you have good godly men and women providing insight? Or are you getting a steady diet of whatever it is the world is churning out? If you want to find some good authors and bloggers and pastors to read and listen to, then the best place to start your search is by asking the good teachers you already have – your parents and relatives, your elders and pastor, Christian school teachers – who they would recommend. I’ve included my own list at the end and one key point to remember is that, even with good teachers, they all have their own shortcomings and blind spots. We celebrate the wisdom of Luther every year again on October 31, but we don’t appreciate all he said, especially about the Jews. John Piper is a great resource, but we differ with him on baptism. C.S. Lewis had a real way with words, but he also believed in purgatory. So you, as a learner, still have to assess and weigh what your teachers say – even your good and godly teachers – up against God’s Word. You have to use discernment even with them. 2. Ask good questions And that brings us to point two. To be a good life-long learner you have to ask good questions. Proverbs 18:17 says: “The one who states his case first seems right, until another comes and examines him.” To be able to discern fact from fiction, the opportunity for a good cross-examination can be key – we want to hear from both sides. The questions I ask most often are some version of these two: how can God be glorified in this area? how is the devil active in this area? In whatever we do, we want to learn how it can give glory to God. Whether that’s our recreational soccer team, or a philosophy class at university, or our part-time fast food restaurant job, the more time and energy we’re devoting to an activity, the more thought and effort we should give to learning how we can, here too, worship God with our efforts. The follow-up question is, how is the devil is active in this area too? If we’re heavily involved in our church it might not even seem like we’re in the middle of a spiritual war. But God tells us different. He says the devil is prowling “around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). So part of being a life-long learner is learning to see through the devil’s attacks. What temptation are you being confronted with here, what ideas are being pushed at you? It could be as simple as the temptation to laze off when the boss’s back is turned, but whatever it is, it’s important to remember that all of life is filled with opportunities for worship. And we need to remember, too, that the devil is trying to distract and intimidate us from doing so. 3. Read, read, read the Bible! Finally, the most important part of being a life-long learner is diving deeply and regularly into God’s Word. In preparing for this talk I was struck by how much the Bible had to say on the topic and I was only scratching at the surface. The Bible tells us about God, about the purpose behind His creation, and about our own purpose too. If we were to return to our driving analogy one last time, we could compare the Bible to our GPS system. This is our map, and if we’re going to be setting out on our journey as life-long learners, then the smartest thing we can do is look to it for guidance. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION 1. What are some other tips and strategies to help us learn on our own? 2. What other qualities should life-long learners foster in themselves? 3. In Ecclesiastes 12:12b we read the warning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” and in 2 Tim 3:7 we’re told that it is possible to be “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Is there a case to be made then, that we should not be life long learners? Why not? Recommended resources In keeping with the theme of threes, three of each…. Podcasts Albert Mohler’s The Briefing The World And Everything In It CrossPolitic                                         Websites ReformedPerspective.ca/resources World.wnd.org Creation.com Authors RC Sproul Edward T. Welch Nancy Pearcey Specific books (for more recommendations see ReallyGoodReads.com) Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson Can I smoke pot? by Tom Breeden and Mark L. Ward Jr. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom This article appeared in the January/February 2020 issue under the title "Moving into the Driver's Seat."...

Christian education

Rating books for the school library

Having just reviewed Escape From the Killing Fields (by Nancy Moyer) for the senior section of our Christian School Library, I thought it would be a good book to use to illustrate how a volume, which has its definite downside, can still remain on the shelves and, hopefully, teach young readers in the process. The story Ly Lorn, brought up in Cambodia, was a teenager when the Kmer Rouge took over. Dispossessed of her city home she was forced to flee, together with her large family, into the Cambodian countryside. Living in a one-room hut, and compelled to work brutally long hours at hard labor, she watched all her siblings and parents die, with the exception of an older sister. Lorn had the advantage of having worked for World Vision at which place workers had introduced her to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Brought to a baby faith in Christ, she, from time to time throughout the book, confesses trust in Him. It is rather confusing, however, to read Lorn's separate accountings of her family member's deaths. They are Buddhist but she does not seem unduly concerned about their afterlife. On the contrary, death is depicted as peaceful and as a place away from the atrocities of the present. The historic pages of Cambodia's holocaust are graphically and realistically portrayed as man's inhumanity to man. Lorn's story, and the story of her fellow Cambodians, is one of much weeping but also one of hope. In the end, she and her sister safely arrive in the US and are helped by a host of loving people. Given shelter they now have the option to worship freely the God Who has delivered them from bondage. There is no clear, happily ever after in the Lord, however. Lorn submits to and desires a traditional marriage. She lets others (an uncle and an aunt) choose her spouse. Nothing is mentioned about whether or not the man is a Christian and his attributes are mainly that he is a hard worker and, later, a good father. Lorn also, again in the last chapter, inflates the work ethic, the importance of education and the possibility of her children attaining well-paying jobs. She even goes so far as to say that it is too much for her to attend church regularly - a depressing statement in view of the turn her life has been given. The paste-up With regard to these rather negative overtones creeping throughout the pages, a short write-up has been pasted into the book. This write-up will be pointed out to the older children checking it out of the library. It is a wise parent who monitors his or her child(ren)'s books. This particular book, for example, can lead to fruitful discussions and much introspection as to whether or not we appreciate our religious freedom enough. Who knows what tomorrow will bring to Canada? The write-up pasted into Escape from the Killing Fields reads as follows: There are a number of things to keep in mind as you read this book. Learn that the history of Cambodia's last few decades is very sad and horrifying. Note that Lorn's story illustrates God's grace. She is shown that salvation is only in Jesus and her life is spared. Remember that Lorn is a very young Christian who (as yet) has very little knowledge of what God teaches in His Word. You see this in the way she speaks of her family's death. You also see it in the way she marries (not using Biblical guidelines for choosing a Christian husband.) You continue to see it in the way she seems to count (in the last chapter), possessions, education and job security as very important. Church attendance, on the other hand, as well as Bible study, appear to be secondary. Do speak with your Mom and Dad about what you've read....

Christian education

School: who should rule?

A few years back I was privileged to join my colleague André Schutten in making presentations to Reformed churches and schools across Canada. We were talking about the political and legal challenges we are seeing against parental authority in education, and in preparing for these presentations I did some research into what Reformed Christians believe about who is primarily responsible for the education of children. I had assumed that there was a common perspective about parental authority, in light of covenant theology. I was wrong. Who calls the shots - the Church or parents? The church orders of the Reformed denominations in Canada can be traced back to the Synod of Dort Church Order drafted in 1618-1619. Article 21 of this document stated that: The consistories everywhere shall see to it that there are good schoolteachers, not only to teach the children reading, writing, languages, and the liberal arts, but also to instruct them in godliness and in the catechism. Article 44 adds, The classis shall authorize a number of its ministers… to visit all the churches once a year, in cities as well as in rural districts, and to take heed whether the ministers, consistories, and school teachers faithfully perform the duties of their offices, adhere to sound doctrine… What this means is that churches are assumed to have authority over schools, at least when it comes to deciding who teaches and what is taught. CHURCH In my research I discovered that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC) in Canada uphold this 1619 Church Order, and as such, have officially church-run schools. But they are a rarity. PARENTS So what do the church orders of the other Reformed denominations say? The Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) have Article 58, which states: The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions. Parents are entrusted with the authority to have their children attend a faithful school, though churches are to encourage them in this. The United Reformed Church’s (URC) version of the Church Order, in Article 14, notes that elders “are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling…” As such, it is similar to the CanRC Church Order but it does not insist that schooling is in accordance with the Reformed confessions. The 2012 Proposed Joint Church Order of the CanRC and URC churches does a great job combining these by calling on the consistory to “promote schooling at all levels that is in harmony with the Word of God as summarized the Three Forms of Unity.” This creates space for home schooling and also requires conformity to the Reformed confessions. The Free Reformed Churches have a common theological heritage as the NRCs, but their Church Order has changed on this matter. Article 54 states: The Consistories shall see to it that the parents, in harmony with the promises made at the baptism of their children, have them taught at schools where the instruction is in accordance with the Word of God and the Three Forms of Unity. Like the CanRC Church Order, there is explicit mention made that the schooling must be in accordance with the Reformed Confessions. Are the church orders true to life? These various church orders do seem to reflect the type of education that we commonly see occurring among families in these denominations. NRC congregations have set up their own church-directed schools. Apart from the Roman Catholic schools, this model is very rare in Canada today. Members of CanRC churches have started schools where the majority of the students are also CanRC. However, more recently the direction has shifted to working with parents of other orthodox Reformed churches in starting and maintaining schools. URC churches recently came out of the CRC and as a result many of the children still attend non-denominational Christian schools, though a more recent move is towards explicitly Reformed schools like Heritage Christian School in Jordan, Ontario. FRC parents don’t have as many options as they have fewer churches. But they work together with NRC, Heritage Reformed, and parents of other church backgrounds to maintain confessional Reformed schools. All of these Reformed denominations recognize a responsibility for churches when it comes to promoting solid education, but most have moved far away from the 1619 model in which the churches had direct authority and responsibility over schools. Schooling according to the Bible One big reason for the difference of perspective on the role of the church in education is because the Bible has very little to say about schooling. There is no mention of schools in Scriptures. The same is true of education in an institutional sense for children in general. Does this mean that the Bible has nothing to say about education? No. But it does mean that our modern understanding of education is foreign to Bible times. Through the lens of the Bible, life itself is education. In other words, education is not limited to a specific setting or a time in our life. It starts when we are born and never ends. This is important because institutional education has become an industry in the Western world. We associate it with certificates, diplomas, and degrees. But as valuable as these may be, if we think they are necessary for education then the Bible says we are missing the mark. Making the tough choices At the baptismal font, parents promise to raise their children in the fear of the Lord as soon as these children are able to understand. The schooling they choose for their child should be consistent with this promise and with the preaching they get from the pulpit. This raises the question of how far a church can go when there is disagreement between elders and parents of what constitutes “godly schooling.” It is not uncommon for parents in a church to send their children to different schools. And when the consistory addresses the parent’s choice, it can quickly become a sensitive and difficult conversation. In our postmodern world, we don’t like being told that the choice we make is right or wrong. In fact, even being questioned about our choices in education can get our hackles up. This is a sensitive issue. For example, after one of the ARPA presentations about legal challenges in education I was quite surprised when one homeschooling mom told me that this was the very first time she heard some of our points – about the centrality of parental authority in education and the dangers of teaching within the state-directed education system – being made within the walls of the particular church we were presenting in and which she was a member of. She explained that they had tried to raise related issues for years but most people would refuse to consider it. Although homeschooling seems to have strong biblical support, apparently discussing it at her Reformed church was not welcomed. All of the church orders mentioned previously are consistent in ascribing elders with the responsibility of holding parents to account about their decision for how they educate their children. The reality is that in this part of life, as everywhere else, there can be many temptations to pursue what we want rather than what is best. The desire to attend a school that has better facilities, teachers, academic standards, sports programs, shop classes, etc. can lead us to compromise how these things are taught. On the flip side, we are wrong if we think our only educational option is a school that has the name “Reformed” on it or that, in its constitution, says it is based on the Reformed confessions. There is much more to education than a name or a constitution. And from another angle, just because education is being done in the home does not make it godly or quality. The Bible does not insist that schooling has to be institutional (ie within the walls of a school). But it does make it clear that all education has to be in harmony with God’s Word, and our Church Orders make it clear that the consistory has a responsibility in this regard. Questions for the readers In an effort to spark some public discussion about this, I would like to submit the following questions with the hope that some of Reformed Perspective’s readers will respond via letters to the editor or article submissions: While homeschooling isn't specifically mentioned in most Reformed church orders, should we assume it to be implicitly included (as just another type of school)? Or should it be included explicitly? Why or why not? How should consistories go about ensuring that education being done in a homeschool is godly and in line with the Reformed confessions Some Reformed families send their children to public schools (also in places where Reformed and Christian schools do exist). From the context of what is outlined in the church orders, can this be defended? Some Reformed families send their children to non-denominational Christian schools, also in places where an orthodox Reformed school is present. Should the church speak to this through preaching, prayers, and visits? If so, how? Some Reformed families send their children to Reformed schools and believe this completes their parental educational responsibilities. What more is required of them? How can the consistory and Church best go about explaining that to them? Some schools are structured as parental schools but go by the name of a church federation (ex. the Hope Canadian Reformed School). What happens when the direction of the parents/board of the school conflicts with the direction of the church that these parents have implicitly or explicitly tied themselves to (ex. in choice of Bible translations)? What are the blessings and dangers of a parental school going by the name of a church federation? ...

Christian education

Peter and PICS: Inclusive Education

Why, and how, Edmonton’s Parkland Immanuel Christian School (PICS) won a national award for inclusive education Last year our local Canadian Reformed school received an award – the National Inclusive Education Award – for the way they fully included our son Peter in school life. My husband and I wanted to share some of the highlights of what Parkland Immanuel Christian School (PICS) did through the years, as a way of encouraging our Reformed schools across Canada to continue to aspire to include students with special needs in all facets of the school experience. A little about Peter To begin it is probably helpful to know a bit about our son, Peter, and the nature of his disabilities. Peter was born prematurely, at 25 weeks gestation, and weighed just over 2 pounds. Thirty-six hours after being born he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage, which resulted in mild to moderate cerebral palsy (spastic triplegia). He began walking at age 4, and today he walks community distances using ankle-foot orthotics on both legs, wears a hand splint on his left hand, and has full use of his right hand. He also has a ventricular-peritoneal shunt which drains his cerebral spinal fluid from a ventricle in his brain into his abdominal area. He is legally blind and therefore uses a white cane, and requires assistive technology and large print for reading. He has a developmental disability and throughout his school career has been blessed with exceptional educational assistants that have helped to modify the curriculum so that he can readily understand and engage with it, and have supported him in the classroom so that he is a fully contributing member of the class. Peter is also an avid conversationalist, full of questions and personality! He is currently taking Profession of Faith class at Providence Canadian Reformed Church here in Edmonton, he loves attending church, and he is serious about his personal devotions. He has many interests including camping and travelling as a family with his younger brother and 2 younger sisters, golfing, sit-skiing, watching sports, attending social events at church and school with family and friends, and is an avid Oilers fan. Starting school Pete’s inclusive journey at PICS began in kindergarten, in September of 2001. Prior to this the kindergarten teacher met us in our home, and learned all she could about Pete. This was such an important first step, and we appreciated it so much! On the kindergarten orientation day we were so blessed by the number of staff and students that went out of their way to say hello to Pete and make him feel at home. Pete had a wonderful first year at school, where he enjoyed participating in all of the classroom activities as well as the many fieldtrips. In 2002 Pete entered grade 1 as a full-time student. Pete was a “pioneer” at PICS, in that he was the first PICS student to have severe special needs. His grade 1 teacher and educational assistant (EA) took on this new role with incredible enthusiasm. After school hours and in the evenings (without pay) they attended workshops by the Edmonton Regional Coalition for Inclusive Education, to learn all they could about quality inclusion. This teacher-EA team went on to be Pete’s teacher and EA in grade 2 and grade 3 as well, providing a wonderful level of consistency. Pete’s IPP (Individual Program Plan) goals were always carefully tracked and recorded, and our meetings were positive and productive. As parents we always felt that our ideas were supported, and that we and the school were on this new journey together. Pete’s elementary teachers in grade 4, 5, and 6 continued the trend of quality inclusion, dedication and care. Pete’s EA spent countless hours of her own time taking Braille courses, so that she could use these skills with Pete, as he learned Braille in the school setting. His EAs helped him be an integral part of School Spirit Days and Sports Days by becoming completely involved in the events themselves and encouraging Pete to do the same. On to Junior High When it came time for Pete to transition to Junior High, the learning assistance coordinator and a member of the school board attended (along with us, as parents) a 5-evening workshop series offered by a public association in Edmonton for students with special needs transitioning from grade 6 to grade 7. This unity between the school and the home made our experience a truly positive one, in which we felt inclusion was always the focus. In Grade 7 the teachers continued to strive to include Pete in all class activities. Despite Pete’s cerebral palsy and visual impairment, his teacher ensured that he went skiing for the day with his class, using modified techniques. He went on the annual Grade 7 three-night camping trip, near Hinton, Alberta, and went orienteering and canoeing, with the help of staff, parents and peers. These amazing memories will stay with him forever! With Junior High came Pete’s introduction to extra-curricular school activities. When all the boys in his class joined the volleyball and basketball teams, Pete was encouraged to join as well. He became an assistant coach, attending all the games, tracking stats and cheering on his classmates. He consistently coached every season, both volleyball and basketball, for 6 years (grade 7-12). With the support of staff, fellow coaches, parents and peers, he also went with the team on overnight trips to various tournaments, including 6 three-day trips to the Provincial Championships in various schools across Alberta. Pete loved being part of the team photos, player parades, banquets, and hotel stays. At his grade 12 Graduation this June he was awarded a scholarship for his commitment to coaching, from the Alberta Schools Athletic Association. A special moment indeed! Senior High and more In Grade 10, 11 and 12, Pete continued to be involved in the same courses and activities as his peers. Many of the students in Senior High joined the school Drama Club, and Pete did the same. He enjoyed helping out with ticket sales and behind-the-scenes support with lighting and props, and the staff even created scenes with Pete in mind, so that Pete could have an acting role tailored to his comfort level and ability. He loved the rehearsals and the adrenaline rush that accompanied his performances, and thoroughly enjoyed the social inclusion that the teachers and peers in the club provided. Besides being on honorary assistant coach on the Senior Volleyball and Basketball teams in Senior High, Pete also became involved in Intramurals. PICS has a Senior Ball Hockey League at noon hour for grades 9 – 12, and teachers play as well! Due to his vision and mobility challenges, to have Pete play on this high-speed, intensive court safely is quite a feat, but with the principal as a teammate, padded protective gear, a helmet to protect his head and shunt and a bright jersey to help the other players look out for him, this venture was a solid success. In Senior High, PICS continued to provide a high level of inclusion within the Senior High level courses. Due to Peter’s developmental disability, the regular curriculum was modified where necessary, and a full-time EA was always present and supportive, but every effort was made to use the materials the whole class was using. Pete’s EAs always ensured that Pete has access to large print materials, and with the invention of the iPad, Pete’s textbooks, assignments and powerpoints were all downloaded and ready at Pete’s fingertips. The learning coordinators at PICS were always professional and ready to help. Every year a variety of consultant visits were scheduled (vision consultant, occupational therapist, adapted education consultant, assistive technology consultant) and meetings were carried out consistently and efficiently. He also took part in Physical Education class. Although full court team sports are challenging, he still learned the same drills and techniques during skill development time, as well as participated as a referee and scorekeeper, with peer support. Extracurriculars Peter was also provided with many unique course opportunities in Senior High. His course load included core subjects such as Math, English, Social Studies, Religious Studies and CALM, as well as a number of options. He was completely included in Band class, and performed consistently well on percussion, including the bass drum, as a one-handed drummer. He performed in all of the Band concerts and assemblies, and attended a Mass Band Concert with 4 other Canadian Reformed schools, via a 6-day road trip, in Winnipeg, in April. The band teacher was so helpful by communicating with us about Pete’s needs on this big trip well ahead of time. He took Construction class for 3 years, and the teacher did a super job of involving Pete in the process of using saws and machines to create tables, a clock and other projects. This can be challenging, especially due to Pete’s vision, but the staff found ways to accommodate this and keep Pete safe! His EA also took a construction course, after hours, in order to support him in this class. He also enjoyed a grade 12 level Wildlife course, and was part of a 2 night hike in Jasper, Alberta in June with his classmates, over difficult terrain, using a trail-rider (best described as a back country aide for wheelchair users that is a cross between a wheelbarrow and a rickshaw!) and “sherpas” (to power the trail-rider; this included his dad, grandpa and two of his uncles) to help him with this challenging feat. What a blessing that this was possible. The staff at PICS this past 13 years – its teachers, its educational assistants, its principals, its secretaries, its learning assistance coordinators, its drama directors, its athletic directors and coaches – have truly proven that they welcome students with special needs, and strive to include them in the most meaningful ways possible. The school community as a whole has also been such a blessing, through individuals and parents who look out for Pete at sports events and fieldtrips, and who stop to chat at church and school events. The School Board has fully supported the creation of a Learning Assistance and Special Needs policy, and has helped to develop the job description of the learning assistance coordinator position, which is crucial to quality inclusion. The Board has supported the hiring of EAs that have training in the area of inclusion, so that this goal can be attained. Peter’s peers Not only were the staff, board and parents very supportive, but Pete’s peers have been a tremendous blessing in our lives as well. His peers knew him well and loved to see him do well. They hung out by their lockers together, and helped him find his role during group projects. They visited him when he was in the hospital for shunt surgery, and they texted and facebooked about their latest basketball game. They attended birthday parties together, went to sports tournaments together, learned and laughed together. Today they golf together, watch hockey together and go to Boston Pizza together. We are so thankful for the bond which continues to exist between them. Pete has graduated from PICS, and he is starting a whole new chapter of his life. This past Spring he applied to Grant MacEwan University here in Edmonton, and in May we heard the exciting news that he was accepted into the Travel Diploma Program with support from a facilitator from the inclusive program there. Out of 20 applicants only 2 were selected, so we are so thankful that God has granted Pete this opportunity. We truly feel that the inclusive education that Pete received at PICS contributed greatly to the inclusive life that Pete continues to lead, and we thank the Lord for this. Conclusion It is our hope and prayer that inclusive education continues to grow and flourish in our schools, our churches and our communities. We have told this story of Pete’s journey, in order to demonstrate how a church and school community can work together to support persons with disabilities. Our journey has had its challenges and there have been times when not all went as smoothly as hoped. But even during challenging times, lessons were learned, new commitments were made, and by God’s grace and through Christian love for one another, the bar for measuring inclusive education was raised. PICS continues to live out a vision of inclusion that knows no bounds. We pray that many others will embrace this vision and make it their own, and under God’s blessing, help all students with disabilities to be vital, visible and living members of God’s Kingdom. Today Peter is busy attending Grant MacEwan University, while also holding down a part-time job as a print assistant at NexGenGraphix. He also volunteers one morning at PICS, helping out students in the library and in Band class, and can often be found chatting with his former teachers in the staff room...

Christian education

Teaching English from a Christian perspective, as brought to you by the Letter C

As Christians, we are rightly thankful for what has been brought to us by the letters A, B, and C, and the letters D through Z, through which we may read the word of God. Our culture, too, so highly values the ability to read and write that it supports the public school teaching of those skills, as well as the related skills of listening, speaking, viewing (the "reading" of visual images), and representing (communicating through visual images). But Christians have even stronger reasons for valuing language and communication, since we know a personal God, who communicates his love and glory to us. So how does a Reformed teacher live out his faith, and enable his students to live out their faith, in the Language Arts classroom? Well, unsurprisingly, given the title, there are (at least) six different things that make the Reformed language arts classroom distinct, all beginning with the letter C. Christ-Centered First of all, Reformed language arts teaching must be truly Christian, or to put it even more strongly, Christ-centered. Obviously this is true of all Reformed education, but what does it actually mean in the Language Arts classroom? For one thing it means Christ's birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and rule should be at the center of our discussions of literature and life. In Schindler's List, for example, Oskar Schindler is frequently spoken of as a kind of savior, since his factories kept many Jews out of the concentration camps. A Christian discussion of the film (or of the novel upon which it is based) will ask how Schindler fails as a "savior," and deal with whether Schindler himself recognized, directly or indirectly, his own need for the Savior. Other kinds of literature either exclude the possibility of salvation, or the need for it (since man is "naturally" good), or show it less directly as being accomplished by some character's heroic acts (or his or her "decision" for Christ). A Reformed teacher will discuss with his students how to react to the false gospels of our culture, and will demonstrate how even these false gospels show the need for the true Savior. Finally, Reformed Language Arts teachers will show and kindle passionate love for literature that fully acknowledges our need for salvation through God's grace alone, and demonstrates that Christ is both Savior and Lord. Covenantal Reformed Language Arts instruction is also covenantal. How? I am not referring simply to the fact a Reformed teacher teaches covenant children (although this is true). My point is that our communication must be a response of thankfulness (our obligation) to His love (according to His promise). This doesn't mean that we can't write for personal reflection or entertainment. It does mean, however, that our more personal writing will reflect on more than just whether we are meeting our own "personal goals" – something that government curricula take for granted as a primary focus of personal reflection. Rather, students should learn to make explicit their understanding of their relationships with God – to "meditate on your precepts and consider your ways" (Psalm 119:15) – and with others through Him. As far as our communication with others is concerned, our basic goal should be "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) and communicating "what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians 4:29). For instance, the novels Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Chosen both deal with isolated religious communities' attempt to deal with the increasing secularism of the society in which they exist. Their response is to withdraw from that culture – an idea that is clearly less than fully faithful. A Reformed language arts teacher will encourage class discussion, journal writing, presentations, and essays about how and whether we fall prey to the temptation to withdraw, and what we might do about that situation of failing to be light and salt in the world. Cultural Education in a Reformed language arts classroom is also cultural. I have already mentioned that as Jesus commands in Matthew 5: 13 - 16, we are to be involved in the world around us. To do that, we need to know the culture in which we live – its idols, and how we may well be rather impressed by those idols ourselves. To gain that knowledge, we study literature - both contemporary literature for a glimpse of our own culture, and the "classics" for a glimpse of the roots of current ideas and attitudes. One other reason to study the classics has been given by C. S. Lewis, who recommended that we read at least two old books for every current one we read. Why? Because like a fish in an aquarium, we are living in our culture, so we may not even see its errors clearly. Lewis said that reading the books of the past is like putting on a new pair of glasses, because while old writers also made errors, they were different errors – ones that we have often learned to see through. At the same time, the old writers saw things about purity, love, and godliness that our own culture may have blinded us to. Counter-Cultural Although Reformed language arts education is cultural, it is also counter-cultural. For example, I use Frank Peretti's Prophet in my Grade Eleven media studies unit on journalism and news coverage. The novel rewards study in two ways. First, it sheds an interesting light on the way the news can be packaged to promote various agendas. Secondly, the novel has its own weaknesses, coming from a somewhat Pentecostal, and arguably Arminian, point of view, which can promote discussions about exactly how the Spirit does do His work among His people, and how God exercises His sovereignty in man's salvation. After we analyze both of these issues from a Biblical perspective, I challenge students to respond concretely to the errors of our culture by writing a letter to the editor and/or a critical or persuasive essay. Creativity The challenge of responding concretely, to both Christ and culture, brings us to the fifth element of Reformed language arts education: creativity. Though we must test (and challenge) the spirits of our age, we cannot stop with a purely negative and critical approach. We must also be positive, using our talents in communication to glorify God and build up the neighbor. This is why the students in each grade of my English classes must submit a piece of work to be published, or at least considered for publication, by someone outside the school. There are plenty of places to seek publication: the annual Remembrance Day Contest and various poetry contests, magazines like Reader's Digest and Reformed Perspective, and books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Whether or not a student gets published, he or she must write a process paper dealing with the issues faced in crafting his or her work. Cooperation The aspect of Reformed language arts education that I find hardest to carry out is its communal/cooperative nature. When a baby is baptized, God’s covenant promises to him or her are witnessed by the whole congregation, the body of Christ. Two chapters in the Bible deal extensively with how the members of the body are necessary for each other's welfare: Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Covenant youth should be trained to seek the good of the whole congregation, to work together, to build each other up. Unfortunately, the students' all-too-human nature often makes this difficult, since group projects – setting up an assembly together, putting on a drama skit, or presenting a dramatic reading of a poem – often mean that some try to ride on the coat-tails of others. This can be avoided by giving each group member a distinct role and responsibility (as in the body of Christ), by cementing the cohesion of the groups with various team-building activities, by assigning groups smaller tasks with more supervision at first, and by assigning "group" work outside the school walls. For example, students can be assigned to write up the memories of older members of the congregation, for an anthology of anecdotes about various moments in history, thus requiring them to work with people they might rarely, if ever, talk to otherwise. The most challenging part of bringing out the communal aspect of communication, however, lies in encouraging more gifted students to support their fellow learners without short-circuiting their learning. The best way to meet this challenge is to ensure that the tasks a teacher gives his or her students are meaningful and thoughtful enough to require everyone's participation. However, equally important is the kind of examples students have seen of Christian cooperation within their school, churches, and families. How well do we, as adults, model a patient attitude toward those weaker than ourselves - neither ignoring them, as our competitive and individualistic society tempts us to do, nor taking their independence from them? Conclusion As you can see, Reformed language arts education is a colossal challenge, requiring caring, commitment, compassion, and consistency. A Reformed teacher must not only teach effectively, but also model the values he or she teaches. This can only be done, with many shortcomings (with which I am all too familiar), through the work of the Spirit, by the Word and prayer, and within the communion of the saints. I would love to hear from any of my fellow saints out there whether these thoughts have struck a chord. (There, I ended with a c-word.)...