Educational Philosophy

An Antidote for Theological Naïveté

February 6, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he last time I flipped through the Christian Book Distributor catalog, I sighed. I really shouldn’t have because, after all, Cindy has taught us to mock laugh at their fiction offerings. It is just amazing to me what Christians will {1} believe, {2} sell to each other, and {3} buy. I’m not saying it’s all bad. There are always diamonds in the rough, of course. I really could go on about the mediocre writing put out by most publishing companies these days, but truly it is the ideas that concern me.

A year or two ago, I quit doing book reviews {unless I’m offered a book that I really would be willing to buy with my own money}. This was a very intentional decision. I had enjoyed doing book reviews in the past. It was fun, and I liked the idea of receiving books for free. {I’m a sucker for books, what can I say?} After a while, however, I realized that I was spending my time reading and reviewing books filled with bad ideas and bad writing — and subsequently spending a lot of time anguishing over how to give an honest review while still be gracious and encouraging.

I decided that reviewing these {mostly} terrible books was a bad use of my time.

Charlotte Mason's wise advice on keeping children from both theological error as well as pride: good books are fortifying.

 

But still, I inwardly cringe throughout the year. I ache for my community when it embraces bad ideas, bad theology, bad stories. Let’s take The Shack. It got a pass into the mainstream because it gave a lot of people warm, fuzzy feelings about God. But if “stories are catechisms with flesh on,” as N.D. Wilson once said, then Houston, we have a problem.

The only thing worse than bad theology is bad theology wrapped in poor, purple prose.

Of course, truly good writing is much more compelling, and therefore dangerous. But I digress.

I flipped through the offerings of the catalog, torturing myself.

I was going to give examples, but I decided that I can only sound cruel and insensitive when I doubt the wisdom of people who “believe in Heaven more” because some child claims that he went there, rather than because the Bible says it’s true.

Over the years, my question has become one of protecting my own children and those I love. How do I help my children become the sort of people who are not blown about by every wind of doctrine, who do not naïvely embrace every new silly book published by a “Christian” publisher, without encouraging them to become also prideful or cynical, neither of which ought to be characteristic of a believer?

I was reading chapter 6 of Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume, when I stumbled upon her answer to this conundrum.

It is as we have seen disastrous when child or man learns to think in a groove, and shivers like an unaccustomed bather on the steps of a new notion. This danger is perhaps averted by giving children as their daily diet the wise thoughts of great minds, and of many great minds; so that they may gradually and unconsciously get the courage of their opinions. If we fail in this duty, so soon as the young people get their ‘liberty’ they will run after the first fad that presents itself; try it for a while and then take up another to be discarded in its turn, and remain uncertain and ill-guided for the rest of their days.

Let’s walk through this quote. In this chapter, she warns against us feeding our children opinions instead of living ideas. Opinions — even if we truly believe they be correct — do not have the sort of substance upon which we can build a foundation for good thinking. Living ideas, Miss Mason says, do.

Truth does.

 

Seeing Many Sides

I once listened to a lecture on teaching the progymnasmata, in preparation for our own endeavors here. The lecturer — it might have been James Selby — discussed the different writing assignments. We ask the student to rewrite what he has read, and we call these writings “variations.” In the Fable Stages, he is to write the story shorter, write the story longer, write it from the perspective of someone in the story, write the same plot but with different characters in a different setting, and so on.

The idea is that the student becomes able to view a story from all sides and from different perspectives. First, he reads the story, which is much like seeing a cube drawn upon a piece of paper. But then, he picks it up and plays with it and turns it around and feels it and views it right-side-up and up-side down.

When he is older, he must do this with arguments. The ultimate orator has the ability to view his arguments from all sides, anticipate possible objections, and answer them himself before they are ever raised by his opponents or audience. This is what we see the Apostle Paul doing over and over in his writings, especially in Romans — raising and answering objections. The is one sign of an expert orator.

To return to Miss Mason’s quote, then, she warns us against the “disastrous” effects of a child or man who has the habit of “thinking in a groove.” This is the person who has never picked up the cube and played with it. He comes of age, and never realizes there are other ways to think about things, and it shakes him to his very core when he begins to hear other perspectives. He loses what little confidence he once had. The ultimate result, she says, is “running after fads,” which is exactly what we see in many Christians — hastening to uncritically embrace every new thought or idea, every new hip blogger, every new book put out by CBD or their local Christian bookstore.

 

The Antidote

If Charlotte had just left us with a warning, I would have felt discouraged. How do we get children to think outside of the groove? Very few people are teaching the progym; surely there is more to it than that. But right inside her quote is the answer:

This danger is perhaps averted by giving children as their daily diet the wise thoughts of great minds, and of many great minds; so that they may gradually and unconsciously get the courage of their opinions.

So, in addition to their Bible reading and catechism , the “wise thoughts of great minds, and of many great minds” is an antidote.

I love AmblesideOnline. I am currently reading through Year 5, pre-reading for my oldest son, and Year 2, aloud with my oldest daughter. This week alone we’ve had the opportunity to think about Christian ministry to Muslims, women in ministry, the treatment of the poor, how God answers prayer, why it is important for a king to love his country, tactics in war, how the human eye works, and more. We’ve discussed how Jed Smith acted out his faith while among Indians and nonbelieving whites, how he handled the pressures of being a mountain man, and how he repented when he did wrong. We’ve discussed friendship through the lens of Badger, Mole, and Rat’s intervention with Toad. We’ve discussed the power of story and how it seems superior in persuasion in regard to the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin upon slavery sentiment {essentially agreeing with Russell Kirk that imagination, not dialectic, rules the world}.

And it’s only Wednesday.

So what about theological naïveté? What specific works guard against this?

Well, I don’t know that I’m the right person to come up with a list, but I’ll try.

For adults, I think much can be done by simply reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation {this link is to the version that CS Lewis considered “a masterpiece”} and Augustine’s City of God. I haven’t finished either of these {yet — like everything, this is a marathon, not a race}, but just as I’ve noticed that reading Mason inoculates me against every new educational fad and idea that comes along, so reading bits and pieces of Augustine and Athanasius inoculates me against new theological ideas. In fact, they teach me that these “new” bad ideas aren’t new at all, and likewise the best reasons for rejecting them were thought many, many centuries ago.

My husband assures me that Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvanism is equally fortifying, but I have yet to read it. And how could we forget Russell Kirk’s assertion that Pilgrim’s Progress was the antidote to Hobbes’ Leviathan?

For my children, we read Scripture and narrate. That is key. If we don’t do that, we might as well not do anything. But lately, I have discovered something really excellent. Or, should I say, someone really excellent: Simonetta Carr. Last term, we read Augustine. This term, we’re reading Athanasius. {John Calvin is waiting in the wings.} We read a chapter at a sitting, and the children take turns narrating. Through these books, we’ve discussed the importance of prayer, the courage of convictions, sin and salvation, the false doctrines of Arius. Augustine laughed at baptism, but was rebuked by his friend, and we discussed the implications of their conversation. We’ve discussed the right of the Church to govern herself, free from the intervention of kings and emperors.

And more.

These little books have been excellent, and my children have discussed doctrine, gently and without knowing it, without getting their minds bogged down in a sort of analysis that isn’t appropriate for their ages, especially the younger ones.

These books essentially do for depth what Trial and Triumph tends to do for breadth and have been a wonderful addition to our weeks.

When we think of “good books,” we often think in terms of books that are pleasant to us. We think subjectively. But good books are more than that. To the extent that they get good ideas into our souls, they fortify us against falsehood, strengthen and challenge and refine our convictions, and mature the soul.

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21 Comments

  • Reply Carol February 20, 2013 at 6:03 am

    Brandy, your post got me looking back on some things I’d underlined when I read CM’s Vol 6 last year: ‘acceptance or rejection of ideas, saving children from some of the loose thinking & heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need; general unrest, which has its rise in wrong thinking & wrong judging…’ Your last paragraph summed it up well.

  • Reply Lanaya February 18, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Good, good stuff to ponder.

  • Reply Lauren February 12, 2013 at 12:00 am

    Hi Brandy,

    Thank you for the Kuyper recommendation! Over the last few years I have found some authors that are just so rich- like precious treasure. The Word of God is our most precious treasure but some authors have written wonderful works that explain and help my understanding of His Word. Some of the books are:

    Practical Works of Richard Baxter: A Christian Directory
    Overcoming Sin and Temptation by Owen, Kapic, Taylor, and Piper
    Communion with the Triune God by Owen, Kapic, and Taylor
    Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Burroughs

    Also, this biography is fantastic and reads more like a devotional. It is the two book set biography of Hudson Taylor by Mrs. Howard Taylor. You can find the set inexpensively at OMF Books.

    I think that there are plenty of other but these are just wonderful.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 12, 2013 at 12:28 am

      Lauren, thank you for the book suggestions! I will be sure to look these up.

      I own the complete works of Jonathan Edwards, which is another fabulous read that I didn’t put on the list. 😉

  • Reply Phyllis February 9, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    I just have to say “Amen!”

  • Reply Carrie February 9, 2013 at 3:36 am

    I’ve only recently found your site, and already I’ve enjoyed the writing so much! Just wanted to thank you for the wonderful links for young readers – I’ve added all three to my wish list.

  • Reply Lady M February 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    This – {I was going to give examples, but I decided that I can only sound cruel and insensitive when I doubt the wisdom of people who “believe in Heaven more” because some child claims that he went there, rather than because the Bible says it’s true.} – this book depressed me because we have family members who will buy into this book and will believe it to be true (truer?) than the Bible…if they dusted off their Bible to look at it. Sigh. I read through it quickly at Target one day while waiting my husband to look at something else. It made me so sad…

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 9, 2013 at 12:31 am

      Lady M, have you ever read the first bit of II Cor. 12 in regard to this sort of thing? Paul mentions it, but he seems wary to discuss it very much, and implies that {1} the words heard in Heaven we are not to repeat and {2} there is a danger of boasting or taking pride in such an experience…Interesting. It was *not* used as an bolster to faith!

  • Reply Sara February 8, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I really appreciate the links. We are approaching the fall of Rome in History, and I was lamenting the lack of early church Father biographies from this period in our homeschool curriculum.

  • Reply Pilgrim February 8, 2013 at 1:15 am

    Thanks for your thoughts about “adult” reading and the children’s books look great. They are in my amazon cart now! I have read Kuyper and he really helped me understand reformed faith. I had to outline all of his speeches because they were so excellent. I should revisit them. Honestly, they are one of the primary reasons I attend the church I do now. I do wonder how to help with shifting sands and poor theology – so thanks for reminding us to stay the course and help our kids think through – not just parrot – what our faith really means. Tonight we finished “Little Pilgrim’s Progress” so I guess we are beginning that process. My three year old was telling us his own “pilgrim” story that included a trip to the Eiffel Tower!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 9, 2013 at 12:26 am

      You are making me want to read Kuyper more and more! I remember the bit my husband read aloud and I loved it so I don’t know what is taking me so long. I guess I just have a really big, awesome book stack. 😉

  • Reply Eva February 7, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Re the comment about what Christians will sell to each other, I keep thinking of fingerbones of saints….At least, I have read that those types of things were once sold.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      Okay, I had not made that connection, but I think you are brilliant here! I suppose there have *always* been people trying to make a buck off of God’s people…

  • Reply walking February 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    I stopped receiving Christian Book Distributor catalogs ages ago. Too much twaddle.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      So true! We had stopped receiving them in the past, but we purchased a Bible from their website for our daughter for Christmas, so it started back up again. I’m trying to just throw them in the trash when they come instead of letting myself get depressed over it. 🙂

  • Reply Jeanne February 7, 2013 at 7:28 am

    “The only thing worse than bad theology is bad theology wrapped in poor, purple prose.”

    Yep.

    These books look excellent. I have a favourite children’s book on Athanasius as well. It’s ‘Against the World: The Odyssey of Athanasius by Henry Coray. I learned lots!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm

      I will have to look that one up, Jeanne! Ever since we read the T&T chapter, my son will go through times where he yells “Athanasius Contra Mundum!” I think he likes yelling in Latin, but still…his is a very compelling story. 🙂

  • Reply Sallie February 7, 2013 at 2:16 am

    I don’t know if you still want to do book reviews, but I think you would find some good stuff to review coming out of InterVarsity Press. I get the review catalogs and there are a lot of high quality books in there, including in their academic areas. Let me know if you want a contact.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts February 7, 2013 at 5:15 am

      Thank you, sweet friend! I have a huge stack of books right now, but when I get low I will contact you. I appreciate it!

      In CBD’s defense, their academic section didn’t look horrible… 🙂

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