Have you met Gabi McDermott, one of the ten seniors in our Petra Academy class of 2017?
Two weeks after Gabi enrolled at Petra four years ago, her older brother died tragically and unexpectedly. Todd Hicks – my predecessor as Headmaster (and now much-beloved guest teacher and mentor following his bout with brain cancer) – walked through the grief with Gabi and her family, but it was not easy due to the sadness of the situation and complications with Todd’s health.
When I first met Gabi last fall, she told me gently but plainly that it was going to be hard for her to trust me as Petra’s new Headmaster, since Mr. Hicks (as well as then-Operations Manager Hope Sukut) had cared for her so well. As with any student, I knew it would take time, but I especially didn’t want to let Gabi down in her final two years at Petra.
Thankfully, God has been faithful to us both. Academically, Gabi is having a good year in her studies, working on her senior thesis, which argues for continued use of drones in the American military so long as they are used alongside humans and not fully automated. Athletically, Gabi was our lone senior on the varsity volleyball team, showing much improvement in ability and encouragement of others. Personally, she has grown and matured in how she relates to her friends, her family, and our faculty, as well as in her love for the Lord.
I wanted you to see this photo of Gabi with her parents, Tim and Martha, as her smile is a beautiful testimony of what God has done in her life here at Petra as a student, athlete, and young woman.
Petra Academy, now in our 21st year in Bozeman, is the only K4-12th grade classical Christian school in the Gallatin Valley. With a student body of 212 students, Petra has experienced steady growth of 7-10% every year for the past five years. Parents, in addition to funding their local government school by paying their taxes, make further sacrifices in order to send their students and partner with us in preparing students to live purposeful, godly lives.
And the students? Here’s the typical refrain (particularly of alumni): “Petra is hard, but I love(d) it.”
Ian Laird is one such alumnus. Graduating from Petra last spring, Ian enrolled as a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, TX, this fall, studying Computer Science and beginning to learn cryptography and data sorting methods in his spare time for possible future specialization.
“I have really been enjoying Baylor,” he writes. “While I really like that there are more than seven other people in my class,” he continues, “I do miss the pointed discussions we would have in Humanities. I cannot think of any very deep classes I have been involved in so far, and my Freshman English class is super easy.”
Ian says he’s taking full advantage of the time freed up by his preparation at Petra to pursue more extra-curricular activities and to try to get ahead in his Computer Science classes at Baylor.
Deepening Our Influence
What happens at Petra has made a difference for Gabi and Ian – personally, spiritually, academically. Below is a list of ways we’re working to make a difference for more Petra students. Just this year, we:
– added orchestra for 4th-6th graders so students who have taken violin with us in the previous three grades can continue their musical study as an alternate option to choir;
– added Lyceum (7th-12th grades) to facilitate deeper thinking and application of Humanities material via communal lecture by faculty and student discussion;
– added our first-ever dual enrollment course (Computer Science I) in conjunction with Gallatin College/Montana State University, by which students can earn credit from us as and earn transferable college credit for the same class (and at a fraction of the cost) as well. 100% of our 10th graders signed up for this dual enrollment course this first year;
– added Computer Science II (11th grade), Drama IV (11th-12th grades), and additional secondary math instructors to better accommodate students who need and want more challenge or help in mathematics.
In addition, we continue to:
– refine one of the best classical Christian curricula in the country;
– expand our new elementary playground (we cut the ribbon on Phase One in November);
– deepen our 7th-12th grade house system to develop a community of students encouraged to love God completely, love others well, and love themselves rightly;
– work to secure our third 5-year accreditation and ensure excellence as a member in good standing of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (onsite visit in March);
– plan our new Summer Scholae Camps (June 12-16 and 19-23, 2017) for kids ages 7-12 in the Bozeman community this summer (details to come by Spring Break 2017).
Finally, we are daily striving to be:
– a good neighbor to the city of Bozeman by making our space available for rent to various community organizations (athletic, Christian, and other). People love our facility!
– a leader in our local Christian community by modeling healthy transdenominational relationships in our school of families from over 40 churches in the Gallatin Valley;
– and a leader in Christian education statewide as well as nationally, serving as a resource to new start-up schools, working to stay current on pending legislation and school choice initiatives as part of the Montana Federation of Independent Schools, and contributing content to the Association of Classical and Christian Schools’ journal, The Classical Difference.
Help Us Meet the Need
As is the case with all private education, some families are just not able to pay full tuition without some kind of scholarship assistance. While our policy is that no family pays less than 50% of tuition, over 30 current families (49 total students) would not be here without the $93,500 we have provided in scholarship allocation.
We’ve just completed our first of three major fundraisers this year: our elementary school Spell-a-thon exceeded our goal of $20,000 and yielded $24,291.83! Later this winter, we’ll ask for personal and business sponsorships for our annual play – Meet Me in St. Louis, which will run March 2-4, 2017 – with the goal of raising $45,000.
But today – at the end of 2016 and as our second of these three major fundraisers – could I ask you to prayerfully consider helping us raise $24,209 to keep us on track in meeting our fiscal goals?
Some may be able to give $100; others may be able to give $1,000; for a few, a $5,000 gift may not be out of the question. However the Lord might guide and provide, we would be grateful for your consideration. All gifts are tax-deductible.
God is doing amazing things at Petra Academy. On behalf of students like Gabi, Ian, and others, thank you for considering a special gift to support the work of our school. Your contribution will help instill truth, goodness, and beauty in the life of our school and community for years to come.
May God’s riches in Jesus the Christ be yours this Christmas season,
PS: If you have questions or would like to speak with me personally about a question you have or a gift you would like to make, please contact me via email or at 582-8165.
PPS: Please make your check out to Petra Academy and mail it to Petra Academy, 4720 Classical Way, Bozeman, MT, 59718 by December 31. We will provide a tax receipt in January. Thank you!
Recently, World Magazine published an article titled, “Classical Conflict,” which asked the question, “Will classical public charter schools lure Christian parents away from schools that acknowledge Christ as the center of all things?”
The piece details how some schools – particularly in the southwest part of the United States – have adopted a classical curriculum in a push for educational excellence, which is to be commended. The article tracks
the explosion of classical education across the country, among Christian schools, homeschooling groups, and, increasingly, public school charters. Several charter groups, including Arizona-based Great Hearts and the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College, are expanding rapidly in charter-friendly states. Just like classical Christian schools, the charters aim to teach students to embrace truth, goodness, and beauty as virtuous citizens. But there’s one key difference: the logos they teach doesn’t have its foundation in the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus the Christ.
As the article recounts,
Teachers in these schools talk about Jesus as a historical figure and acknowledge that the Western tradition is steeped in Christianity. Students learn how large the faith of many of the Founding Fathers loomed as they struggled to get the American experiment right. Although students would never be invited in an assembly to profess faith in Jesus, they learn to think and reason. Any who eventually acknowledge Christ as Savior won’t do so flippantly, but will have a true understanding of who God is—with the rhetorical tools to defend their belief.
This is progress, isn’t it? Perhaps, or perhaps not. David Goodwin, president of the Association for Classical Christian Schools (the association of which Petra is an accredited member), is quoted in the article and insists “a classical education without Christ just creates a hole begging for an answer.” Proponents of secular classical models might argue that’s the goal, allowing parents to fill the gaps at home and at church, but Goodwin is skeptical.
Classical charter schools turn out students who believe truth can hang freely suspended in space. Or worse, that truth and faith are separable, as you have an idealistic education looking for truth, but the source of truth has been expunged.
Let there be no question as to the source to Whom we at Petra look for truth, goodness, and beauty. Our statement of mission is clear:
Recognizing our need for God’s grace, Petra Academy strives to awaken love and wonder in our students by teaching them to observe with humility, think with reason, and articulate with charity for the flourishing of humanity and the renown of Jesus the Christ.
As I like to tell prospective parents, Petra is classical and we’re Christian, but we’re not mad about either. On the contrary, we take great joy in introducing and enveloping children in the love and wonder of Christ, his Word, and his world, and we’re grateful for each and every opportunity to talk about Jesus not just as a great teacher nor as just another historical figure, but as the One that the Nicene Creed reminds us,
is the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
(For more on the difference between Christian and secular classical schools, read “Classical Schools: When Christianity Is Silenced,” in the winter edition of The Classical Difference, published by the Association of Classical and Christian Schools.)
“You shall not steal.”
Today is affectionately (if you’re a shopper) known as Cyber Monday, a day for those who didn’t get all their Black Friday Christmas shopping done in person to still cash in on promised sweet deals via the Internet. Marketing companies created “Cyber Monday” just over a decade ago to boost sales, debuting the phrase on November 28, 2005, by way of a Shop.org press release entitled “Cyber Monday Quickly Becoming One of the Biggest Online Shopping Days of the Year”.
But not all that is glitters is gold…or good. According to RetailMeNot’s 2013 surveys (I’m sure there’s a 2016 update somewhere),
86 percent of working consumers plan to spend some time shopping during work hours this Monday, and that means employers could see more than $2.5 billion per hour in lost work productivity when taking into consideration the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistic’s data that there are about 115 million working Americans with an average hourly wage of $24.10. The survey found that 1 in 4 working Americans plan to spend four hours or more shopping online for gifts during work hours today, and more than 1 in 5 of those surveyed have been caught at work doing so.
Recently, my church’s youth pastor asked me to substitute for him and teach our high school students for a Sunday. As Scott had been going through one of the Ten Commandments each week, I looked forward to following suit, particularly since it afforded the opportunity to teach the Commandments not as the peak of God’s expectations, but as its floor…and all with its source in grace.
Christopher Wright, in his excellent treatise, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, writes:
God acts first and calls people to respond. This is the starting point for the moral teaching of the Old Testament. God takes the initiative in grace and redeeming action and then makes his ethical demand in the light of it. Ethics then becomes a matter of response and gratitude within a personal relationship, not of blind obedience to rules or adherence to timeless principals…He delivered them (Israel) and made them his people and then called them to keep his law. Ethical obedience is a response to God’s grace, not a means of achieving it.
Wright continues, emphasizing individual responsibility in the midst of community:
Many Old Testament laws, including the Ten Commandments, are framed in the second person singular, addressing the individual. But they are addressed to the individual as part of the community, and their purpose is not just individual uprightness but the moral and spiritual health of that whole community. For God’s purpose, as we have seen, was not to invent a production line for righteous individuals, but to create a new community of people who in their social life would embody those qualities of righteousness, peace, justice and love that reflect God’s own character and were God’s original purpose for humanity.
God’s words are not suggestions for us to individually achieve the highest possible morality; rather, they are the only foundation upon which we might build community that profits us by honoring His Person and Character. Wright (along with the rest of history) reminds us of the painful alternative: “Choose the wrong God, get the wrong society.”
Unfortunately, this truth is not taught to students in government schools, and rarely to adults in Christian churches. In fact, if the Ten Commandments are taught as “commandments” at all, they are usually presented as some pinnacle of Christian obedience rather than as the basics required for a functioning civilization. But can a culture flourish in truth, goodness, and beauty when built upon a foundation of murder, adultery, theft, slander, and covetousness that goes against God’s commands?
We don’t think so, which is why we strive to trust and teach the biblical virtues implicit in God’s prohibitions – honoring all life, supporting marital fidelity and singular chastity, caring for others’ possessions as much as our own, speaking honestly and for the edification of others, and praying for blessing for all involved, always.
While the instruction not to steal is ancient, it is hardly out of date – not for us as individuals, nor for us as a society. Stealing – taking something that is not yours to take – has never been good for people or honoring to God, whether on Cyber Monday or any other day of the week.
(The following post is taken from Mr. Dunham’s address at our November Recitation on Friday, November 4.)
In case you hadn’t heard, Tuesday is an important day for our nation, as voters go to the polls to elect our next President. I realize it’s usually considered bad form to talk about religion or politics, so let me just go ahead and do both (consider this your trigger warning).
Regardless of what one thinks of the candidates in question (and there are many questions) or our political process in general (again, many questions), we must recognize that politics are always downstream of culture, and culture is always downstream of religion. In other words, out of what we worship comes a culture that tends to worships those things. And this worship results in attempted political elections of those who promise to secure those things we worship, or die trying.
And we are dying trying.
“Our Constitution,” Founding Father John Adams wrote, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This is because our Constitution was written with a view of establishing a Republic representative of the people it governed, but if the people represented are of an immoral character, it doesn’t take a political scientist to tell us what said Republic will turn out to be.
Now let me get to the question you have been asking yourselves since I began: “Mr. Dunham, why are you troubling our already troubled hearts with this talk of politics when we simply came to see and hear our kids at Recitation?”
I mention the mess we are in – here at Recitation and just five days before the general election – because, believe it or not, I want you to have hope. I want you to have hope not in a candidate nor in a political party, not in a government nor in its Founding Fathers, not even in a set of documents inspired by and composed in line with the ancient world’s Western thought built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian teachings we love.
No, I want you to have hope because our children are being trained – by you and by us – to love what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. For not only are politics downstream of culture, and culture downstream of religion, but our kids are as well, and here at Petra, they are learning to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, and soul, and their neighbor as themselves, growing up in a school culture in which Christianity is not merely an add-on but an essential for how we live and move and have our being.
I want you to have hope this morning because of what your students are learning, how they’re learning, and from whom they are learning. And I want you to have hope that, regardless of the outcome of this or any other election, we will, by God’s grace, continue to strive to awaken love and wonder for all that is true, good, and beautiful, not only in your kids, but in your grandkids and in your great-grandkids as well, should Jesus tarry.
So yes, pray for our nation, that God’s Will be done. But do so with the knowledge and hope that an answer to your prayer is right up here on stage this morning, learning to love the God who loves him or her, and who we are praying will grow up to obey God’s Word and be part of the redemption of his world, for the flourishing of humanity and the renown of Jesus the Christ.
“Let the heavens rejoice,
Let the earth be glad;
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;
They will sing before the Lord, for he comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.”
Our world is made up of wondrous, incredible things each bearing the creative fingerprints of God. Having taught grammar school students for a number of years I always loved taking them out into the wider world to look at and touch the objects of our study, the leaves, tree bark, the planets and stars, and playing with the air, as in raising a hot air balloon. We enjoyed turning over rocks, straining the waters for aquatic macroinvertebrates (otherwise known as fish food), all with the benefit of experiencing the handiwork of our Lord.
During my own childhood, unless school was in session, I would spend entire days, sunup to sundown until called to come home, running about outside playing, building, hiding, hunting, working, watching, and imagining. God blessed me with a deep love for the outdoors and for the natural world and with a family and a living place that encouraged these sorts of things.
It was then with no small measure of disappointment that when I became a teacher, I found students who were actually disinterested, distracted, or seemingly unwilling to commit themselves to the exploration of and observation of the objects of our study. How could it be that a growing child was not enthralled with the beauty of a living bird in both color and song, or with the differences between spruce and fir needles, or with the richness of pond mud? What a bummer! What a discouragement!
Since the early days of my teaching, I’ve come to understand that children are indeed various. They come packaged with personalities and interests of their own. And, like myself, they bow to idols and confirm their worship of them through habits and liturgies, some of which are hurtful. Distractions get in the way of their learning and ransack their God-given potential for growth and the good. Teaching them sometimes seemed a hopeless task, like trying to teach a stump. Yet our school mission statement lays down the gauntlet for teachers, saying in part that we are to “awaken love and wonder in our students by teaching them to observe with humility.”
So, we use John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching to guide us in accomplishing this very thing, inviting them to a love for learning and an appetite for close observation. This is my responsibility, so I continually seek to hone my teaching craft. Making instructional improvements and winning more and more students over to new loves for learning is truly one of the joys of teaching. Yet, a realistic view of all this is that in this broken, sinful world, I will never get my students to see all there is to observe. The apostle Paul writes of this in I Corinthians, chapter 13:12
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully,
even as I am fully known.
While regarding these limitations, let us not forget the hope for the future that we all possess as followers of Christ. In the opening verses that I read, King David writes of the coming of our Lord to judge the earth. It is not by accident here that he links the natural/physical world with the return of our Lord to judge the earth. He speaks of the “heavens rejoicing”, a resounding sea and jubilant fields. He writes that the “trees of the forest will sing for joy.” Do real trees possess the capability to sing? Here he is using figurative language/personification to communicate something significant.
For a classical teacher, these verses are ripe with meaning. On the day of God’s arrival, we will finally see the real truth of all things. With that truth at hand, as we sit to observe the leaf of a tree, the cloud of doubts, distractions, and idols will all be gone. That simple leaf in a fallen world that before merely reminded us of the fingerprints of God will finally trumpet the characteristics of God in both design and purpose, as if in a beautiful song of praise. In that song will be a message of joy in the culmination of things.
At that time each of us will truly experience what it means to observe with humility in a complete and thorough way. I know that for the boyish, inquisitive parts that are still working within me I am looking forward to experiencing the physical world in this vivid, truthful manner.
When the story begins, John’s world is very narrow and purposeless. He thinks that his reason for existing is simply to follow the Landlord’s rules. He doesn’t understand much about the world around him, and he hasn’t seen much because he hasn’t gone far from what is familiar to him. It is only when he ventures outside of what is familiar to him, when he goes a few yards farther down the road, that he experiences something that alters his life forever.
All of us are in a similar position. Like John, we don’t see very clearly and we don’t understand very much. We often obey our Landlord’s rules out of fear of the consequences rather than love for the Landlord. Like John, we need to hear a voice calling us, a beauty that draws us out of our common experience and fear into a new reality.
I submit to you that for those who have ears willing to hear and eyes willing to see, your humanities classes this year will offer many opportunities to experience the kind of Joy that came to John. Ask the seniors if they have ever had a moment in humanities class when they felt a “sweetness and a pang so piercing” it made them forget about everything else, a sudden shocking moment of a beauty that pointed beyond itself to that which is ultimately Beautiful. The same can happen to you if, like John, you are willing to venture a few yards farther down the road, a little way past the familiar, a little way beyond what you are used to.
It may happen to you when you read of Aeneas returning to rescue his people, helm afire and god-forged shield held high. Or when you read of Beowulf’s body, broken in his final battle. For some, Joy will come when Elizabeth finally sees that all the pride she had been seeing in Darcy was mirrored in her very own prejudice, and that she does love him, she does.
Perhaps Joy will come when you read of the simple obedience and faith of the early fathers of the church, willing to die joyfully for Christ, or read in George Herbert’s poetry how God uses our afflictions to tune our hearts to the key of his love. Or when you read of how the Redcrosse Knight’s first glimpse of the Celestial City breaks his heart with its beauty.
At some point, the moment for Joy will come, and the only question is whether you will be ready for it. Will you? Will you be ready to hear the voice say to you “Come”? Will you hear the sweet musical sound? Will you see the mist part and glimpse the island? Will you see the object of your nameless desire?
At the end of The Pilgrim’s Regress, John eventually realizes that the object of his desire cannot be found in this world. All the beauty and delight he found in objects in this world were signposts pointing him to a beauty and a delight of an object that transcended this world. At this point John realizes the truth of the words St. Augustine wrote in the opening of his Confessions, words addressed to God:
“You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is [restless] until it rests in you.”
John realizes that the voice he heard long ago, and the island he saw, and all the beauty and joy he had known from that day to this was all used by God to draw his heart to its proper place. God made John restless by design so that John would learn contentment in God alone and not in the gifts of God.
The same is true of each of you. God has poured numerous blessings into your lives. One of those blessings is that he has placed you at Petra this year to learn and grow in wisdom and virtue. But this year won’t be all beauty and joy and glimpses of islands. There are papers to be written, speeches to deliver, tests to take, conflict with friends to resolve, sins to confess. But this is all part of the work of planting and pruning apple trees so you can enjoy an abundant harvest of the sweet fruit of good education.
And rest assured that while you labor toward this harvest of education, God himself is at work in you, watering your weary roots, pruning your dead branches, and preparing you for the harvest of mature godliness.
He has made you restless by design, and he will not rest in his work until you find perfect rest in him.
In his autobiographical allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a young boy named John who lives in a town full of rules. His parents tell him that if he doesn’t follow the rules, the Landlord who owns the town will throw him into a black hole full of snakes. This naturally upsets John, who strives as hard as he can to keep the rules. He strives so hard that the rules are almost the only thing that John can think about.
Now the days and the weeks went on again, and I dreamed that John had little peace either by day or night for thinking of the rules and the black hole full of snakes. At first he tried very hard to keep them all, but when it came to bed-time he always found that he had broken far more than he had kept: and the thought of the horrible tortures to which the good, kind Landlord would put him became such a burden that next day he would become quite reckless and break as many as he possible could; for oddly enough this eased his mind for the moment. But then after a few days the fear would return and this time it would be worse than before because of the dreadful number of rules that he had broken during the interval…
John went out one morning and tried to play in the road and to forget his troubles; but the rules kept coming back into his head so that he did not make much of it. However, he went on always a few yards further till suddenly he looked up and saw that he was so far away from home that he was in a part of the road he had never seen before. Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking of a string or one note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice–and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star. The voice said, Come.
Then John saw that there was a stone wall beside the road in that part: but it had (what he had never seen in a garden wall before) a window. There was no glass in the window and no bars; it was just a square hole in the wall. Through it he saw a green wood full of primroses: and he remembered suddenly how he had gone into another wood to pull primroses, as a child, very long ago–so long that even the moment of remembering the memory seemed still out of reach. While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island.
What John experiences out on the road is the awakening of a nameless desire, a desire that is simultaneously sweet and painful. This is what C.S. Lewis calls Joy, with a capital “J”. Joy is an extremely important concept to Lewis: experiences of Joy and the search to find what caused it eventually led Lewis to become a Christian.
Lewis scholar Louis Markos explains what Lewis means by Joy this way:
Joy signified an intense, overwhelming desire for an indefinable, numinous “something” that was just beyond his grasp. Joy, that is, was a feeling, but a feeling that pointed beyond itself. If one tried to hold on to the feeling and enjoy it as an end in itself, it would quickly vanish…Likewise, if one tried (greedily) to reproduce the feeling, it would never come; joy comes only when the mind forgets itself and seeks something else.
As the story goes on, John leaves his family and sets out from his hometown in search of the object of his nameless desire. His search is made more difficult by two things. First, he finds many things that pretend to be the object of his desire–art, music, girls, ideas, fame, etc. These do indeed give him pleasure for a while, but not for very long. Second, John’s search grows desperate when he realizes that the more counterfeits he finds, the harder it is to remember what Joy really feels like.
What does all this have to do with humanities, Mr. Koenen? Well, everything, which I will explain in my third and final post.
Why study humanities? As the name implies, we study the humanities in order to become human. Think about what this means. Since we are studying to become human, that must mean we are not human yet, or at least not fully.
So what does it mean to be human? Certainly we are all human biologically, and fully so in this meaning of the word. None of us are semi-species, half-human and half-something-else (though some may act like it at times). From a Christian worldview, we must define “human” by looking at Jesus Christ, the only perfect human. To be human means to be like Christ.
This helps us understand the purpose of the humanities then: we study them in order to become more like Christ, and therefore more human. And we all know that we need to grow in this way. But if we are to grow in Christ, why do we study so many books written by humans, many of them profoundly flawed, many of them not even Christian, some of them wildly antagonistic toward Christianity?
This is an excellent question, and its answer has two parts. First of all, because all truth comes from God even when uttered by pagan tongues. All beauty, even if painted by rebellious hands, has its beginning and its end in God, the Supremely Beautiful One. And all goodness has its measure in the goodness of God.
The second reason such books can help us become more like Christ is because of the doctrine of common grace. God graciously gives good gifts even to those in rebellion against him. To many non-Christians, God has revealed truth, given artistic gifts, and even the ability to love, sacrifice, and live virtuously. By studying the best that humans have thought, said, and done through the ages, we begin to participate in a Great Conversation of what it means to be human. We recognize both our common humanity with these authors and humbly acknowledge that though they may not have full access to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, yet in many ways they are far more human than we have yet become.
Finally, we don’t just read these books on their own. We also study them from a Christian framework, learning to see the world through the lens of Scripture, trying to see through the eyes and heart of Christ. And as we read these books, they begin to change us. They make us restless, awakening in us deep desires that we can’t quite name. The best way I can explain this effect books have on us is by telling a story…which I will do in my next post.
Memory and memorization get a bad rap these days. We are told that, in the era of Google, there is no need to memorize anything anymore. After all, the argument goes, why take up personal hard drive space when everything we need to know is somewhere in the Cloud?
It’s an attractive idea, I suppose, as it appeals to our preoccupation with convenience, but such catalogued memory does us few favors when the Internet’s down.
Memory is not merely for the sake of nostalgia—“that memory-substitute that remembers only backward, and selectively,” writes James K.A. Smith in his Comment Magazine editorial, “Memory, Forgetting, and Hope.” He continues:
Nostalgia is the selective memory of traditionalism. Instead of drawing on the past like a well to nourish our imagination going forward, nostalgia mourns a mythical ‘golden age’ while conveniently forgetting the injustices in that history. Nostalgia invokes ‘the tradition’ as a white knight while deflecting your attention from the serfs crushed underfoot. Nostalgia ends up being its own form of forgetting.
Our Petra Recitations are a monthly opportunity for students to recite on our stage a little of what they are learning in our classrooms. The purpose of all the memory work leading up to these recitations is not to demonstrate how amazing our students’ little hard drives are (though they are), nor is it to gather together and warm ourselves by the nostalgic flames of psalms and poetry from better days gone by. Rather, we learn and memorize and recite because, as Smith continues,
In our age, bent on ‘progress,’ remembering is a revolutionary act…We’re convinced that there are all sorts of buried treasures in our tradition that can be mined for contemporary challenges. Nourishing intellectual water lies in the deep wells of Christian heritage—and yet, all too often, we don’t realize we’re dying of thirst even while slurping up any ‘new’ thing. There are bottles of joy and wisdom and imagination in the Christian cellar that prior generations have abandoned.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 71:17-18,
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come.
We have nothing to proclaim without the memory of that which we have been taught. At Petra, ours is an invitation (once again, a la Smith), “to take, eat, remember, believe: this is the rite of a stretched people who know how to hope because they know how to remember.”
This is why we gather for our elementary recitation each month, and why we are planning our first-ever secondary recitation later this week. Perhaps one day, we will have a parental recitation (though I fear most of us have given up on the idea and purpose of memory, reducing it to little more than the process of holding a phone number in our heads before transferring it to our phones).
The degree to which words and ideas have a hold on us has much to do with the degree to which we have a hold on them. As our children learn everything from the Scriptures to “The Skin Song,” may they also learn by way of recitation that there is power in memory – not just to remember the past, but to remember the past for the sake of the present and the future.
(The following is the second part of a two-part series on Latin at Petra Academy. Click here to read part 1).
At Petra, we begin our 3rd through 6th grade Latin classes with “Jingles and Chants,” foundational elements of the Latin language sung or rhythmically chanted by the group as a whole. The rhythm and rhyme of the chants serves as a memory aid for students, and the daily group recitation helps ease the burden of memorizing copious amounts of Latin endings and forms, as required in the study of this particular language.
In addition to the daily recitation of these jingles and chants, the students are taught how to recall the information contained in them as a reference while they work. The ability to learn large amounts of information and recall and apply specific details when needed is a skill that will benefit students well beyond their years of Latin study. It is a foundational skill upon which many other skills will be built, just as learning Latin grammar is the basis for more advanced language study.
As the student develops, he is less inclined to be satisfied with sheer memorization and begins to ask “Why?” with reference to how the language works the way it does. He wants to know why verbs have six endings in the active voice of each tense while nouns have ten endings per declension. He wants to know why prepositional phrases in English aren’t always prepositional phrases in Latin. He wants to know why Latin has so many endings and why Latin word order doesn’t make sense to his English thinking mind.
When the student begins raising questions such as these, he has entered the “pert” stage and is ready to learn the logic of Latin. Logic is concerned with the thing as it is known, and is the science and art of thinking. It is at this point in a student’s Latin instruction that he should be taught the relationship between words and how those relationships are demonstrated by the inflections used. In short, now that the student has learned the vocabulary and endings in the grammar stage, he is ready to learn how the endings change as the word is used differently in the sentence. He is ready to think about the function of the word in the sentence, not just its meaning.
In Petra’s Latin program, the transition into the logic of Latin begins in 6th grade and continues through 8th and 9th grades. In 6th grade, our students begin thinking about language in a different way than they have before. In their English classes, they learn to differentiate the parts of speech and the functions they perform in the context of a sentence. This understanding carries over into Latin and they begin to see the words not just as a part of speech (e.g. noun), but as a functional element of a sentence, performing a specific job in relation to the other words of the sentence (e.g. indirect object).
Students learn to think about the idea conveyed instead of just the words displayed. In logic stage Latin, students begin to apply linguistic rules to words instead of just memorizing the endings for that word. They begin to see patterns and predict the endings a word might have based on their understanding of the language. They add the skill of translation to their foundation of memorization.
As the student learns the mechanics of the language, he begins to try his hand at expressing his own thoughts in Latin to see if others can correctly understand his meaning. He beings to play at word choice and to explore the freedoms found in the flexibility of Latin word order. As the student moves into the “poetic” stage of development, he becomes more concerned with the science and art of communication, known as rhetoric.
Rhetoric emphasizes the effectiveness of communication and it is in the rhetoric stage of Latin study that ideas are effectively conveyed through persuasive articulation. Much like the swift deployment of a Roman legion to quell an uprising, a well presented truth can travel the time honored road of rhetoric, built on the foundations of logic and grammar, to tear down a falsehood.
Rhetoric is the culmination of language study. Without the truth of logic rooted in the correctness of grammar, though, the effectiveness of rhetoric stumbles short. Children are developmentally predisposed to first learning the vocabulary and inflections of Latin grammar, followed by how the vocabulary and inflections function in relationship with one another, before learning how to effectively use the vocabulary in conjunction with the inflected constructions to express themselves in Latin. Effective communication is the goal of language study, but it cannot be accomplished without the foundation of grammar.