31 March 2009

Don't Forget to Slay the Dragon

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Ephesians 2:10
Some of us are born into trying times. I, for one, often wish I had lived during the latter part of King Arthur's reign. This would be right after his defeat of the pagans, and right before the big battle in which he was killed. The Kingdom of Camelot, filled with virtuous knighthood, equity symbolized by round tables, and undeniably beautiful flowing dresses, is right up my alley.

Just don't remind me about the lack of running water.

Another great time for living might have been after America had been established. The war in which she threw off the bounds of her unnatural subservience to England was over, and citizens were developing a new government based upon the created order.

And there were still long flowing dresses, a definite plus.

But I live now. We all do. I live in a time which is watching the reversal of all that was accomplished by the Revolutionary War, where people in the last election cried out not for freedom, but for slavery to a ruler who would rule them in an unnatural, tyrannical way. A ruler who knows nothing of the Constitution which he vowed before the Creator to protect.

My response is to alternately listen or read the news and respond with rants and fear, or follow the model of my dear friend Lady Ostrich and stick my head in the sand.

Ranting is interesting, but generally accomplishes little. And ostriches aren't exactly known for changing the world.

There is, of course, a monastic approach. This is one view of homeschooling in a nutshell. You take the legacy of great books, great minds, great thoughts, and you pass them down within the home, allowing little souls to marinate in virtue and nobility until a time when the world is again ready for greatness.

And then there are those who are called to slay the dragon.

Do you remember the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo says that he wishes he had never been given the ring? This is one of the few times where the movie nicely parallels the book. Gandalf's sage advice is that men do not choose their times, but they do choose what to do in the times that have been given to them.

Frodo was a dragon-slayer in a metaphorical sense, just as his forbear Bilbo had been in the literal sense.

Ancient tales remind us not to forget to slay the dragon, even when we feel that longing for our heavenly home.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down and read Margaret Hodges' Saint George and the Dragon to the children. I can't believe I put off acquiring this book for so long, for it is a treasure to behold and a joy to read. The children were enchanted! Here is another echo of timeless sage advice, given to Saint George {the Red Cross Knight} in the midst of a long journey which he knows will end in a battle with a ferocious dragon:
After many days the path became thorny and led up a steep hillside, where a good old hermit lived in a little house by himself. While Una rested, the Red Cross Knight climbed with the hermit to the top of the hill and looked out across the valley. There against the evening sky they saw a mountaintop that touched the highest heavens. It was crowned with a glorious palace, sparkling like stars and circled with walls and towers and pearls and precious stones. Joyful angels were coming and going between heaven and the High City.

Then the Red Cross Knight saw that a little path led up the distant mountain to that city, and he said, "I thought that the fairest palace in the world was the crystal tower in the city of the Fairy Queen. Now I see a palace far more lovely. Una and I should go there at once."

But the old hermit said, "The Fairy Queen has sent you to do brave deeds in this world. That High City that you see is in another world. Before you climb the path to it and hang your shield on its wall, go down into the valley and fight the dragon that you were sent to fight."
Sometimes, when a fierce dragon is staring us in the face, we are tempted to skip the fight and venture off in search of the High City. The High City is our ultimate destination, to be sure. But first, we have work to do. This life isn't all that there is, but it matters nonetheless.

Words from the wise: Don't forget to slay the dragon.

30 March 2009

The Purpose of Singing in the Home

We have Singing Day once each week during Circle Time. We do our normal reading in the children's Bible, our poetry, and so on, but each day Circle Time has a focus and on this particular day, the focus is singing. We began Term One by singing one hymn and one folk song, just as Ambleside suggests. Each term, I have stepped it up, adding new hymns but also reviewing the old.

Ambleside suggests one hymn each month. This is a lot for children the age of my children. It is especially a lot when I consider that I want them to understand the words, both what the words are as well as what they mean. So, I have found that, if a hymn has four verses, we can learn one verse within three weeks, which puts us at exactly one hymn per term. At the end of Term Two, they were doing so well that I added Be Thou My Vision around St. Patrick's Day {good to add an Irish hymn, no?} and so we are set to add a hymn at the end of Term Three. I'm using Ambleside's suggestion and ending the year with a lighthearted rendition of Victory in Jesus.

Children love hymns that are beautiful and hymns that are celebratory. If you want to lose a child completely, introduce them to todays' angst-filled Jesus-is-my-boyfriend tunes. Kids do not like these sorts of songs as a general rule. Twenty-somethings do, and I think that is actually appropriate when you consider where most people are at at that age.

Moving ever onward.

There are a few goals I have with the singing time. I would say that none of them is to actually instruct the children in music. Now, they are instructed in music in this time, but I consider that incidental rather than primary.

The primary goal for me is handing down culture to the children. Because of this, I am very selective when it comes to songs. The Drinking Gourd, a folk song about which tells the story of a man helping with the underground railroad, sets a wonderful precedent for helping those in need. The Cruel War was hard on my daughter, so my son and I sung it in private, but this song was important in how it embodied the senseless tragedy of war, and also the ugliness that comes with women doing battle.

This is reinforced by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, when he discusses that battle is extra-ugly when women are involved and so, of course, Lucy remained behind for the majority of battles.

But I digress.

This term's song is The Old Oaken Bucket, and it expresses a longing for home, symbolized by the oaken bucket with which the singer drew water from the well as a child.

These are rich, wonderful songs, worth handing down to our children.

As a general rule, I haven't been using Ambleside's hymn selections. I have nothing wrong with them, but my children are so young and inexperienced that they have not mastered the hymns we regularly sing in our own church. So, I've been picking my favorite regular hymns from our worship services and teaching them to the children. This hints at a secondary purpose, and that is enabling the children to participate more in church. Granted, most four-year-olds simply aren't going to sing along, even if they know the songs. But knowing the songs engages them much more than not knowing the songs, and it means that they are prepared for the day that they muster up the courage to sing in public.

Culture has traditionally been handed down through stories, poetry {mmmmmmmmm....epic poetry....}, songs, art, and dance. Also important is the fact that it was handed down in person. Of course, for those who cannot sing, there is nothing shameful about downloading some MP3s to use as an in-home music director.

In order to solidify our songs, I have decided to sing one review hymn or folk song each day during Term Three. We will still have our focused day where we are learning new songs, but this will give us a chance to review each day, plus it will help the children keep a song in their heart daily.

Our children will receive a culture regardless of what we do. If we are deliberate, we can make sure they are handed the culture of our choosing. They are heirs to a great tradition, but it is a tradition that has mostly been forgotten, so we will need to be much more proactive than our forbears. However, if we neglect these things, our children will receive their culture from popular culture: the children on the playground, the television, the radio. It isn't bad to have our children exposed to any of these things, but I would suggest that it is sad to give our children a culture defined by default when there is so much more available to them.

Now, does anyone have a good method for learning some traditional folk dances in the home?

Singing Lesson for the Very Young

I thought I'd add this for those of you with little ones. The key to singing isn't necessarily natural ability, though of course this helps. The key to singing is listening. An out-of-tune singer generally cannot hear the notes of the song correctly. The simplest activity for young children which will train them for future singing is to play a note, on a piano if you have one, and challenge them to match their voice to the note. My children now do this on their own. They will play a note as they run by the piano and practice singing it, just for fun. My current two-year-old was born with natural perfect pitch, but the others are now surpassing her by practicing their "voice matching" on their own. If you want your children to sing well, spend a couple minutes each day challenging them to hear a note and sing it back.

27 March 2009

Term 2 Read-Alouds

In Teaching the Trivium, the Bluedorns make what some would consider a radical suggestion: read aloud to your children at least two hours per day. This is outside of schooling. In fact, I would say that a good reason to keep the schooling light in the early years to make sure you have room for this habit of reading aloud.

I did not do this when my children were very, very young, but my current two-year-old is subjected to a lot of reading aloud in a way my first two children were not.

The baby? He sleeps through life, pretty much.

So some days we read aloud more than two hours. Some days, we are lucky if we fit in fifteen minutes. But I would say that an average weekday contains an hour and a half. In the winter, our weekends were filled with lots of reading, but now that we are in full swing in the garden, we work pretty much all day on Saturdays and there isn't any reading at all.

In this list, I'm only including the chapter books we read. There are always small children's books that the girls are bringing to me, and of course we fit those in, but the purpose of this list is to give an idea of what a family can read and enjoy together. About half of the books are ones that I read to the children alone, and the other half were books that even Si listened in on.

Reading together is one way of building a family culture. We have this wonderful collection of shared stories and more and more often I hear our son say that something that has happened is like a book we read, and it is so nice to have everyone be literally on the same page as he is.

So on to the list!




26 March 2009

The Darndest Things: The Gift Giver

It is approximately 3:30pm on an Average Day. He has finished his painstaking copywork. He has completed his math work. He has even spent some time in leisurely reading. And then I hear it. The rustle of the construction paper. The crisp sound of a tape dispenser. The satisfying snipping of scissors.

He loves that sister of his, yes he does, and he will show her, yes he will.

While she dreams, princess-like, upon our tattered couch, her brother labors.

He prepares packages of odd trinkets he purchased in the Sparks Store at Awana. He draws her pictures and wraps them up. He writes out her beloved capital letters so that she can read them.

And then he sneaks softly into the living room, careful not to awaken her. She is small and the couch is wide, so there is plenty of room for him to carry out his plan. He carefully lines up four messy, brightly-colored packages by her side.

And then he grabs a book and steals into the rocking chair, half reading, half anticipating the moment she awakes.

And then she does! She does awaken! And how satisfying a recipient she is for a Gift Giver like him. Her eyes look to pop out of their places, her squeals are loud enough to wake the baby, her giggles are a river of delight. She tears open each package and loudly proclaims her gratitude. She carries his gifts around for an hour, giving each one the just the right amount of attention.

And then it is five o'clock. He be mean to me, she whines. They're fighting again. The magic is retired...until tomorrow.

25 March 2009

Sequential Spelling and School Culture

We have been using Sequential Spelling for almost three weeks now, and I'm very pleased with it. We are definitely reinforcing phonics through spelling, which was my goal. Instead of learning specific words, we are studying word patterns within the language, but in the reverse of reading study. In reading study, the child sees the word pattern and then learns what it sounds like. In Sequential Spelling, the child hears the sound of the word pattern and then learns how to properly write it down.

This spelling program is, for us, the perfect addition to our work based on language-mastery goals.

As far as teaching spelling goes, the protocol is pretty simple. Read the word aloud. Say it in a sentence. Say the word alone again. Pretty simple.

Actually, there is also a color-coded method of writing the word down in front of the child so that the proper spelling is reinforced while also highlighting the pattern within the word that is the actual object of study, but even that is pretty simple once you've done it once or twice.

For the most part, the instructor is making up his own sentences. But, there are tests. And when I read through them, I was scandalized by the sentences.

Actually, that is an exaggeration. I just love the word scandalized and rarely have an opportunity to use it.

Ahem.

But here is a sampling:
Shoving. A bully is always shoving others around. Shoving.

Exploded. She really exploded. Exploded.

Fighting. Those kids are always fighting. Fighting.

Half. I liked math about half the time. Half.

Squealing. They are always squealing their tires. Squealing.
I really don't understand the point of bringing up a negative attitude toward mathematics during spelling time. And I didn't even get to the part where there are three or four days using various conjugations of the verb "to mug."

I would say that all of these sentences are reinforcing bad behaviors and a general negative outlook on life. As teachers, we have to take every opportunity to pour love and goodness and truth and beauty into the little ones. This is our solemn calling.

I attended school in the inner city for three years growing up. I understand that it is a hard culture; I saw that first hand as a child. But part of what causes folks to get stuck in the inner city culture is a complete lack of imagination. These children cannot imagine that anything beautiful exists, that peace is possible, that there is a love that is incorruptible.

Spelling is one more opportunity to reach into the child's soul and assist them in imagining a good life, and this is just as important in the home school as it is in the institutional schools.

So what if, instead, these sentences were used:
Shoving. The hero was shoving her out of the way so as to protect her from the oncoming car. Shoving.

Exploded. The fireworks exploded into a million beautiful colors. Exploded.

Fighting. Earlier generations did the fighting for the freedoms we now enjoy. Fighting.

Half. There was only one candy bar, so the sweet little boy gave his sister half. Half.

Squealing. The children were so excited that they were squealing like little piglets. Squealing.
Here we have a test covering the same words, but we have pulled out all of the darkness and replaced it with ideas that are beautiful, or lasting, or somehow more beneficial.

This is where the teacher in the public schools has a measure of power. Curricula are so constricting from what I hear, and yet something like this is so easily done. A mere twist to the test while covering the exact same ground. I plan to change the word "mug" to "chug" and discuss trains which are happily chugging along. Any teacher using this book can take its wonderful ideas and utilize them in a way that is not held captive by a toxic culture.

23 March 2009

Please Meet: Laurence Anholt

I stumbled across the work of Laurence Anholt once upon a time, about three years ago, when I was thumbing through a Veritas Press catalogue. I believe the book I had noticed was a children's picture book about Degas, and my interest was due to the fact that Degas had been my favorite artist in my teens.

I adored his ballerina sculptures in bronze and even owned a miniature of one of my favorites.

Anyhow, as I was searching for picture books during a planning day, I realized that Laurence Anholt has published many works which seek to bring art to the children. {He has also published other sorts of picture books, but it is his artist series I wish to highlight here.} Anholt has researched real encounters between famous artists and small children and retold them in his books.

Check these out:




Camille and the Sunflowers

Degas and the Little Dancer

Leonardo and the Flying Boy

The Magical Garden of Claude Monet

Matisse: The King of Color

Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail


I hope that someday Anholt decides to touch on some of the older masters. I am much more likely to be introducing my children to Michelangelo than Picasso in the near future. I had a piano teacher once who insisted I wasn't allowed to learn to play jazz until I could play "real" music {and by this she meant classical} well. Now, here I am, insisting that my children understand the more realistic artists long before I am willing to introduce them to artists as abstract as Picasso.

This aside, these books are wonderful and we are ready to dig into our book on Van Gogh during Term Three.

19 March 2009

Term 3: What We're Adding

I wonder if it will always be like this. Term 1, we worked diligently, but it was sort of strange since we did a month, took time off to adjust to a new baby, and then proceeded until the holidays. Then, we had DecemberTerm, which was a big hit and I plan to do it every year, Lord willing. Term 2 started off well. We got back in the groove, and then one child took a developmental leap, and so I added a good half-hour of preschool for her. Now, my son has taken it to the next level and I'm going to be adding things for him to make sure that Term 3 is rigorous enough for him.

I always thought that Term 3 would have a winding-down aspect for it, but I think that adding more depth or breadth and working hard right up to the end is really going to bring about a satisfying break for summer.

Of course, summer won't be without learning. We will still do some daily lessons, but much lighter. I haven't decided all that we will do, and we'll take a week or two off before I implement that anyhow.

So back to what we are adding. We're adding a bit here and there.

Art

We are studying Van Gogh this term. One of our studies will be concerning Van Gogh's famous sunflowers. In addition to planting a field of sunflowers {over 100, half of which have already sprouted}, I am picking up this picture book:



Camille and the Sunflowers

Free Reading

Before the year began, I picked out about half of the free reading books on Ambleside's suggested list for Year One and purchased them. My son has already zoomed through them. When I looked at the list again during my time of preparation, I discovered that it included a couple books I was considering buying anyhow, especially a Beautiful Feet book on Pocahontas that I think my daughters will love. So here is what we're adding to the Free Reading Stack:



The Red Fairy Book
Pocahontas

Saint George and the Dragon


Latin

Recently, I asked a number of questions concerning Latin of a group of women on a Yahoo group to which I belong. My interest centered on how to approach Latin learning when the teacher herself does not know Latin. One of the wise women there suggested that, with my oldest being still so young, my time might best be spent learning Latin myself.

So.

Looks like Mommy is going back to school. Daddy is also showing a passing interest, but Mommy has more time than Daddy does for things like this, so we'll see how that works out. {I'd love to share it with him, but I also don't want to put pressure on him to over-divide his time.}

Anyhow, below is what Mommy will be doing, along with a fun way to begin Latin with the children.



Wheelock's Latin Grammar

Song School Latin


Music

Ambleside is assigning Mahler as the composer this term, which means we'll be going our own way for a short while. I've been wanting to try an Opal Wheeler biography. It was hard for me to choose between two favorites, Chopin and Mozart, but I decided to go with Chopin. Since I started with the biography idea, I have yet to actually choose the song selections.



Frederic Chopin: Son of Poland
{Later Years}


Natural Philosophy

It is time to get more organized in this area. So, I decided to subscribe to that awesome blog everyone always suggests, and also buy the authoritative book on the subject.



Handbook of Nature Study


Education for the Mama

Since I wasn't educated in the classical tradition myself, I have purposed to read at least one book each year on the subject so as to increase my knowledge, hone my skills, and generally make sure I know what I'm doing. Last year's book was incredible, very appropriate since I have young children. This year's is suggested by many women whose schools I admire.



Norms and Nobility


Funding?

Just in case you all think we recently struck gold or something, I never buy all of our books new. Look around. You'd be amazed at how far you can stretch a dollar.

18 March 2009

Samuel: "So You Think You Want a King?"

It is interesting to read the Bible and compare what happened thousands of years ago to what is happening today. Solomon really had a point when he told us there was nothing new under the sun. I've read about Samuel a number of times in my life, but it is interesting to read what John Lord had to say because Lord is taking a historical/sociological/political perspective.

Lord explains that the major observable event in Samuel's life is the transition of the nation of Israel into a monarchical form of government.

Through Moses, the people had been given direction and the form of a proper {for their nation} government. But the people had two downfalls that led to their desire for a king: they began to disobey the Lord {their hearts wandered} and also they looked at other nations that had things they wanted {their eyes wandered}.

My, how this sounds like my beloved native land. As the Christians have lessened in both number and also faithfulness, we have seen our population look around. Look! they say. Canada, Britain, etcetera have socialized healthcare! And also, South Koreans go to school more than our children!

In the last election, they clamored for a man who would rule them like a king. The candidate who lost was not much better, though upon reflection I said that during the election not realizing how very bad this president would be.

Ahem.

The people dreamed of a king, for it is not a traditional American president who magically fills gas tanks, who pays for your mortgage, who makes you feel safe in the night.

Here is what Lord {and the LORD} have to say about a nation's desire for a king:
When the people, therefore, under the guidance of so-called "progressive leaders," hankered for a government which would make them like other nations, and demanded a king, the prophet was greatly moved and sore displeased...There was just cause of complaint. If [Samuel's] own sons would take bribes in rendering judgment, who could be trusted? Civilization would say that there was needed a stronger arm to punish crime and enforce the laws.

Most of you know the story. Samuel takes his troubled heart before the LORD, fearing that such a change would be detrimental for the people. John Lord emphasizes over and over that the LORD was going to warn the people, but He refused to take away their free will, even though the consequences would reach into the future for generations.

The people were going to get what they asked for, but first the LORD warns them:
Samuel therefore spake unto the people,..."This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for himself for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots; and he shall appoint captains over thousands and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear [plough] his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectioners [or perfumers] and cooks and bakers. And he will take your fields and your vineyards and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants; and he will take the tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. And he will take the tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants.
People who ask for a king are asking for slavery. Only slaves and children are taken care of by someone else. The nation wants to be treated like a child by a kind father, but since they are grownups, it is slaves they will be. Their sons will be forced into the army. The ground will be owned and dictated by the king and his bureaucrats. Their daughters will be forced into careers which serve the purposes of the king. The reign of the king is a direct attack on the proper functioning of the family.

How do the people respond? They ignore the LORD and demand a king to go out and fight their battles for them. Then Lord writes:
With all the memories and traditions of their slavery in the land of Egypt, and the grinding despotism incident to an absolute monarchy of which their ancestors bore witness, they preferred despotism with its evils to the independence they had enjoyed under the Judges; for nationality, to which the Jewish people were casting longing eyes, demands law and order as the first condition of society. In obedience to this same principle the grinding monarchy of Louis XIV seemed preferable to the turbulence and anarchy of the Middle Ages, since unarmed and obscure citizens felt safe in their humble avocations. In like manner, after the license of the French Revolution the people said, "Give to us a king once more!" and seated Napoleon on the throne of the Bourbons,--a ruler who took one man out of every five adults to recruit his armies and consolidate his power, which he called the glory of France. Thus kings have reigned by the will of the people...from Saul and David to our own times, except in those few countries where liberty is preferred to material power and military laurels.
Except, except. This is the key, my friends: except where liberty is preferred.

My fear is that we've now a populace that prefers cradle-to-grave care to liberty. It prefers maintaining not America with borders, but a worldwide empire. It prefers comfort and ease. It prefers the notion that someone out there has authority and is making plans.

The LORD's warning still stands. In exchange for having a king, one gives up their liberty. Slaves get cradle-to-grave care, all right, but it's not exactly what we Americans are accustomed to. We have forgotten our own Egyptian equivalent: We through off the heavy yolk of monarchy once, but now we clamor for a king.

17 March 2009

Samuel and the Long View of Changing Culture

The children and I are really enjoying our daily reading of Lord's Beacon Lights of History. Well, maybe that's stretching it. E. and I are enjoying it, and the girls are tolerating it and also bickering.

But I digress.

This work is offering a thorough education to both of us, and perhaps the little girls if they are listening at all. Every once in a while, A. gives me a sign that she is listening much more than I think she is. We try to read through an idea. Sometimes this means four or five pages, but usually it is just a couple paragraphs. Once I told my son this, he began to ask me daily, "So what was the idea there, Mom?" Usually, after I've begun to tell him, he finishes up.

The idea on Monday was that Samuel took the long way when it comes to bringing about change in a nation, but then I began to think that perhaps good change always takes time. Good change is usually in opposition to the forces of this world, forces like greed, envy, strife, and so on. And so it takes time because good must win hearts before it can really be implemented on a societal level.

Samuel, like Moses in the desert, labored forty years in educating the people in God's ways. I found myself wondering if I would have that sort of patience. After all, I intend to kick my children out of the house around age eighteen {I kid, I kid!}.

Lord tells us that the solution to the degeneration of the nation of Israel was to rekindle the religious life. And then he explains Samuel's methods:
[Samuel] was a preacher of righteousness, and in all probability went from city to city and village to village,--as Saint Bernard did when he preached a crusade against the infidels, as John the Baptist did when he preached repentance, as Whitefield did when he sought to kindle religious enthusiasm in England. So he set himself to educate his countrymen in the great truths which appealed to the inner life,--to the heart and conscience. This he did, first, by rousing the slumbering spirits of the elders of tribes when they sought his counsel as a prophet, the like of whom had not appeared since Moses, so gifted and so earnest; and secondly, by founding a school for the education of young men who should go with his instructions wherever he chose to send them, like the early missionaries, to hamlets and villages which he was unable to visit in person.
I have encountered a number of families who see homeschooling as monastic in nature. It is a school of both mind and soul, and the children are bequeathed the treasures of our heritage, everything that is good, pure, true, beautiful, and so on. John Lord says that such methods and aspirations are timeless:
[Samuel's students] lived in communities and ate in common, like the primitive monks. They probably resembled the early Dominican and Franciscan friars of the Middle Ages...Like them they were ascetics in their habits and dress, wearing sheepskins, and living on locusts and wild honey...
Okay, so maybe we don't all wear sheepskin, but I've noticed a number of homeschoolers attempt to capture feral hives.

Ahem.

I don't want to get distracted from my particular vantage point, that of the family governess. What I found fascinating was that this didn't happen overnight. Samuel worked diligently over decades to educate the people. Good things can rarely be accomplished in haste.

16 March 2009

Better Off: Idolatry

One of the foundational discussions in Ken Myers' book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes was concerning the idea of idolatry. Popular culture, especially as expressed through rock music, promotes idolatry, especially idolatry of the self. This was the essence of what Myers was saying in those chapters.

Enter Eric Brende. He's a Catholic living with the Minimites, a stricter-than-Amish Plain Sect whose lives are completely antithetical to the popular culture Myers described. Does this mean idolatry disappears? No! Brende writes:
[Edward] honestly agreed with the group's interpretations of Scripture and its refutations of Catholic positions. Unlike Mr. Miller, Edward had no problem accepting this small local assembly as the only true Christian church, whose doctrinal and disciplinary proclamations could not be gainsaid...

It was not easy for me to understand how someone with his intellectual aptitude could have accepted this. The only way I could make sense of it was that he had become an enthusiast. He had, somewhere on the bumpy ride from the [Vietnam] battlefields, crossed a subtle line--not only to live the way of life, not only to love it, but to idolize it. All too ironic for a lapsed Catholic.
I keep mentioning that I have been pondering the idea of building a livable life, a life that isn't too burdensome to be born by the average person, a life that has room in it for human connection and communing with our Lord. And I fully intend to keep thinking about it. But Brende's warning is clear: our fleshly hearts are never far from idolatry. We can start off wanting a life that better honors God and then begin to worship the formulas that got us there.

14 March 2009

The Darndest Things: Lesson Learned

Every Thursday morning during Circle Time, we read aloud from a children's doctrinal study that is based on the catechism. The format of the book is such that first we learn two or three questions and answers that are usually taken from the catechism but written understandably for very young children. After that, there is a story where the answers to the catechism questions are worked out. At the end, there are a few questions to ask the children, plus a verse to guide a quick prayer.

This week's reading covered the third commandment: "Thou shalt not take the LORD's name in vain." Our catechism answers explained that this involves not taking the LORD Himself lightly, and so we must make sure that our words show reverence for His name and also His works and word.

And then there was the story. This was probably my least favorite story so far. To put it briefly, there is a little boy whose parents are not Christians and so they use the LORD's name in vain. His friends pray for him and he goes home. While at home, his mother spills a cup of coffee on the table and proceeds to use the LORD's name irreverently {this isn't spelled out, by the way; the text simply says that she did this}.

The rest of the story isn't really important for the post, though you might be interested to know that the little boy gets a chance to talk to his parents about God.

Anyhow, one of the review questions at the end was, "What did you learn from this lesson?" or something along those lines.

I was envisioning some sort of sweet speech about being respectful of our LORD when my son very honestly answered: "I learned that just a little thing can make a parent take the LORD's name in vain!"

13 March 2009

Better Off: Education, Literacy and the Speed of Life

Shortcuts lead to emergency mending sessions in order to piece back in what was cut out, to lengthen what was shortened: Computer users, cramped in a cubicle all day long, jogging around the block. Bureaucrats and financiers, zooming ahead along their career paths, then reversing gears to attend school concerts, ball games, and parent meetings. Captives of the technological environment fleeing for brief weekends to mountains, beaches, and rustic cabins.

-Eric Brende
In one chapter of Better Off {The Sounds of Silence}, Eric Brende describes a typical evening in his back-to-the-land life. He describes the crickets singing, the fireflies, and also the deep quiet.

And then he talks about one of my favorite subjects, his ability to read.

Brende had made a number of attempts at reading the tome The Education of Henry Adams. Don't we all have books like this? Books we want to read but just can't seem to get through, for whatever reason? Brende writes:
Tonight, to the flicker of the kerosene lamp, I made inexplicable, rapid progress.

[snip]

Why was the book suddenly so clear and full of insight to me? The subject matter was largely autobiographical and not directly related to my field of interest.

In the modern university, with its rapid turnover of assignments and fast-paced technology, the human brain is treated as just another processing device and is expected to keep pace with electronic blips. But Adam's thought, ponderous and discursive as it was, could not be summarily ingested. He had lived within a culture whose movements were still largely limited by the speed of horses; the ambling cadences of his writing preserved this pace...

This was the secret: to grasp his meaning, you had to be living it.
I wonder how many books I've been unable to get through because my life was too fast to pick up on ideas and inferences that required a slower pace. Surely, my ability to read a book has improved as the many years of pregnancy have required of me a small, unhurried life. {Here, of course, I don't mean my ability to read in a technical sense, but the essence of reading, which is the understanding of the author's ideas. Without comprehension, there is no reading.}

My temptation here is to cut and paste the whole chapter for you, but that would be a spoiler and also probably illegal. Brende talks about speed and time, that sense that the faster we go, the farther behind we are. He writes:
In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.
This is one of my primary concerns with education. There is this sense that what we in America are doing is failing and so the solution presented to us is to cram more into the child's life. We start them younger, we keep them older, we fill every inch of every space in their lives with the concerted effort to teach, to train, to mend what seems to be broken.

What if the fullness, the speed, the noise, what if these are the problem?

If speed reduces what any part of time can hold, the faster we try to get them to go, the more we pack into the child's life, the more they themselves are reduced.

Until finally they are nothing more than a cog in the industrial wheel.

And what an entirely dull prospect that must be.

And then we wonder at their self-medicating in the form of drugs, inappropriate and deviant behaviors, and entertainment.

Why can't they think? This is the question often asked in magazines and newspaper columns.

The answer is very simple. Let's use an illustration from my son's earliest days. My son had handfuls of toys which were battery-powered. They did tricks, if you know what I mean. It didn't take long for such toys to over-stimulate him. And then he would be fussy, irritable, whatever you call it. The solution offered in advice columns I've read for restless infants like this is to mix it up, give them more to do.

For him, this was feeding the beast.

If you want a restless child, overstimulate him.

I learned that this child needed less. He needed one toy, maybe two. He needed one major activity in his week, not ten.

He needed space, and we maybe are all just like him. Our space isn't physical, it's spiritual and mental.

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to build a livable life. I keep circling around to the idea that a livable life is a full life that appears quite empty on the surface. I think Brende is on to something when he explains that having the life less full is giving it more space.

The point of the livable life isn't just the quietness. It's to have room. I think of it like a seedling {not like my seedlings, which are dying daily of damping off...boo hoo} which will grow fine as long as the roots have enough room to expand. The same might be with a child's crowded life...or our own. It is the space which promotes growth. Growth of the family bond. Growth of the intellect, of the soul, of the spirit. Growth of a hobby into a talent and a gift. Growth of a friendship over a cup of coffee.

The space has less in it in order to have room to hold more of the intangible things which make life worth living.

12 March 2009

The Darndest Things: Deliberately Annoying

Our four-year-old is in that stage where she asks the same question over and over. I remember when our oldest was in this stage. We used to hide upcoming events from him so that we didn't have to answer questions about it fifty times a day until the actual day came. I have forgotten that skill and instead find myself repeatedly answering the same question. The good news is that my two-year-old seems to be entering this stage extra-early, meaning we sometimes have two little ones performing this act at the same time!

Goody.

Anyhow, on Monday night, I made a large batch of almond meal scones, enough for us to eat on for breakfast for three mornings. She saw me making them and even asked when we could have one to eat and I told her it was for breakfast the next morning.

Big mistake.

Later that night, I ran in from my baking to give out bedtime kisses {Si had done the tucking-in routine}.
Her: Mommy?

Me: Yes?

Her: When we eat scones?

Me: We'll have them for breakfast tomorrow morning. {Go to kiss Q. goodnight.}

Her: Mommy? When we eat scones?

Me: For breakfast.

Her: Um. When we eat scones?
At this point, she seemed to know that she shouldn't keep asking, but her brain was stuck like a record-player and she just couldn't stop herself. I don't know if she was processing this information out loud, or if she just liked the answer or what {this usually happens in connection with something she's looking forward, and was the same with our oldest}, but whatever it is she continued asking the whole time I was in there. In fact, I finally did this:
Her: Mommy? When we eat--

Me: A.! What are we having for breakfast tomorrow?!

Her: Scones.

Me: Good. Quit asking. Goodnight.

Apparently the Big Kid was listening to this from his room and found it very amusing. I, of course, didn't know this. So I innocently went into his room to give him a kiss.
Him: Mom?

Me: Yes?

Him: What's for breakfast?

Me: Scones. Goodnight.

Him: What's for breakfast?

Me: {sounding annoyed} Scones.

Him: Mom, what's for breakfast?

That was when I ran out of the room screaming, and he was just lying there cackling. I should have known I was in for it when I could hear in the sound of his voice that his eyes were twinkling their wicked twinkle.

I have the naughtiest children.

11 March 2009

All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter Eleven

Negativism!...Everything you have said is negative...What positive proposals do you have and what program do you suggest?

-Ken Myers quoting Jacques Ellul in The Humiliation of the Word

In this way, Myers begins his eleventh and final chapter. Myers explains that being negative in this way is important. If we as a Christian people are in bondage to popular culture, then, as Myers states, identifying the bondage provides a means of escape. As a Christian, being in bondage to something is a serious matter, for it was for the purpose of freedom that Christ set us free.

Myers tries to go further than simply telling us that we should just run toward freedom. He says he wants to suggest how we might run and toward what.

Here are the items on his how-and-toward-what list that I liked. Coincidentally, it is most of the list:
  • Christians should provide leadership in encouraging cultural habits which are against the grain.
  • As long as we are free from the idolatry within the culture, we should feel free to enjoy the good, true, noble, and so on that lies within the culture.
  • Parents need to raise children in a transcendent culture.
  • Christian teachers should pay attention to what is taught not just by their content but by their methods.
  • Christians within the popular media should attempt to be transcendent as well, focusing on important matters like justice, forgiveness, and virtue.
  • Church leaders need to be more sensitive to how forms communicate values.

So now I'll be long-winded and try to break these down and talk about them a little bit. But don't worry. I'll choose my three favorites and work from there.

Parenting and Transcendent Culture

Throughout the book, Myers is declaring TV the dominant medium of popular culture. To some extent, I think this has been replaced by the Internet. However, it is probably still true that TV is the primary way of infusing popular culture into the hearts of our children. I don't know many parents who are plopping a two-year-old in front of a computer screen, but then again maybe I'm just out of sync with the culture.

I've written a few times about our family's relationship with television, so I don't want to go into it a whole lot today. I'll try to put some links at the bottom to those old posts. In short, our children don't watch television. We watch LOST. We tend to watch more TV when we have a newborn because I use it to keep me awake during late evening feedings. This time around, though, I find myself feeding Baby O. in quiet hours and I really can't complain.

I love Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death but it isn't really a spiritual take. I read the book during my first pregnancy, and I remember that it caused me great concern for the patterns of the mind that would develop in my child if he was exposed to lots of television viewing. Si concurred, and the rest is history.

Since we made that decision, we've reaped the benefits, but generally haven't developed much more in our thinking about the medium. This is why I thought Myers was so helpful, that he expanded this to include the idea that TV, in both structure as well as content, communicates popular culture to the people. If I think of it this way, then it seems to me that whereas I thought I was developing good habits of thinking in my children {and I am} there is more--I am actually immersing them in a totally different way of seeing and thinking about the world. This isn't about better literacy rates. This is about building a better citizen of a better culture.

Christian Teachers and Our Methods

And here we have happened upon one of my favorite subjects, education, otherwise known as the bequeathing of good {or bad} ideas from one generation to the next. Myers steps it up a bit and explains briefly that methods themselves are teaching something.

As a communication major in college, I was taught that pretty much everything communicates something. I remember in probably my favorite required course, Communication Theory, that we read about body language. The idea was that the content {"I love you"} could be contradicted by the form {arms crossed and facial expression twisted into a scowl}. As Christians, if we say something wonderful like "every child is a person created in the image of God" and then proceed to utilize methods that treat the child as a machine, our form is contradicting our ideas. If we say that every man is endowed by His Creator with certain inalienable rights, but teach him as if he were a slave, our form is contradicting our ideas. If we say that each child is unique, but insist upon a form that requires extreme conformity in every subject area for every child regardless of natural talent, interests or abilities, our form is contradicting our ideas.

And the clincher goes back to communication theory, which says that the form is more powerful over the long term. Just as the scowl will eventually destroy a marriage, the inappropriate form will destroy the child. If we say one thing and do another, we are double-minded men. And what we do proves what we really believe. This is why Christian schools {both private and home schools} which are simply secular methodologies with content scrubbed whiter than snow are still cause for concern.

Christian Leaders and the Communication of Forms

This is very similar to the situation with teaching, but the issues to think through are different. Over the years, Si and I have attended and visited a number of churches which are not thoughtful about the technology they adopt for congregational use. Myers rightly points out the tendency of evangelicalism to be mostly feeling-based. This is something I think the movement has tried to break out of in recent years, but the fumes of anti-intellectualism remain and cause some thoughtless decision-making.

I think thoughtless is a good word because I really don't think there is purposeful destruction going on. I think most pastors and elders love their churches. They simply focus their deliberations on content rather than form.

I think of a church we attended many years ago where a "church plant" meant renting a new location and then broadcasting the sermon live to that location. The content would be essentially identical. And yet the form completely redefined the concept of a pastor {incidentally the root word of "pastoral"} as a shepherd. This sort of thing sets the precedent for justifying staying home from church altogether. Why not just watch it on TV? If the meeting of the congregation isn't important enough for the pastor himself to physically show up for, why should the parishioners attend, either?

Of course, I also believe this church was personality-driven and dependent on one charismatic leader, which might ultimately explain the decision. This doesn't change the implications of the form.

Or take a more recent example, the encouragement of "twittering" at Seattle church Mars Hill. And, yes, I mean during the actual church service. The explanation in one new report I read was:
"How does the service impact them, what does worship feel like to them and its a good way for them to kind of tell their friends what church is about without their friends even coming in the building,” aid Kyle Firstenberg, Mars Hill Campus Administrator.
Another contact I had said that the pastor receives questions from parishioners during the service, and then picks a couple to answer at the end.

So let's dispense with the content and think about the form here for a minute. First, aid Firstenberg is telling us that the point of Twittering during the service is to focus on the self. How are parishioners impacted? How do they feel about the worship? The form allows those thoughts in all of our heads now and then to come to the front and be given expression to, and immediately at that. Don't like the singer? Twitter the pastor right then. Over time, the obvious outcome is that self-expression takes center-stage during the church service.

This brings me to I Corinthians 14:33-35:
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Regardless of your church's take on a woman's behavior at church, the first part of this passage concerning the character of our Lord {that His kingdom is orderly and therefore our times of meeting together should be orderly} takes precedent. This orderliness is the context for the prohibition of speaking by women. My guess is that the women causing trouble in this early church would have clamored to get their hands on an iPhone and Twitter their hearts out during the service.

Twittering during church does not encourage the orderliness explicitly commanded in Scripture. Moreover, I would say it encourages foolishness. As I am constantly telling my children, it is okay to ask a question, but it is rude and unwise to ask a question right in the middle of someone trying to tell you something. Perhaps your question will be answered if you wait to listen first. {The Bible tells us that a wise man listens before speaking.}

In regard to church, not all of my thoughts during the sermon are important to assert. This is something that has taken me a long time to learn. Many pastors are not preaching the entire implication of every passage. They are focusing on one or two lessons at a time, and usually it is the lesson God laid on their hearts for their congregation. Frankly, what my distracted mind thinks during the service, what questions I selfishly think are more important than what the pastor is saying, are not important.

I would say this is the ultimate example of a marriage between popular culture and the Church. Popular culture says that I am the center of the universe and so what I am interested in is what is important. The mindset of popular culture feels very free to dismiss the pastor and all the hours he has labored before the Lord to properly handle the Word of God and present it to his flock because popular culture believes that all that matters is me.

Transcendence

In 1812, Noah Webster said that something was transcendent if it was excellent or supreme. I would couple this with a concept that comes up within classical education a lot, which is the concept of permanence. The Bible is full of descriptions of the temporary nature of the world. The rich man and will pass away and his wealth will be enjoyed by another. There is also the ultimate Permanent Thing, the Word of our Lord, which, it is written, will stand forever.

There are things that happen which are temporary, but easy for us to get caught up in: bad choices by a bad president, fashionable clothing, the latest gadget, today's headlines. These are, in a way, poor substitutes for the transcendent things: the virtues and strengths which characterize any truly great leader, beauty that comes from inner character, a really good hoe, the greatest stories in the history of the world.

Yes, I really did write "a really good hoe." There will always be a new gadget, but if you have weeds in your garden, and there have been weeds since the fall of mankind, nothing replaces a really good hoe.

As Christians, we have a chance to stand back from the chaos and the clamoring and rest in the things that are really important. Sometimes these will intersect with the chaos, like yesterday when I was reading of even more unjust laws in the works by our government. It isn't the petty details that have me upset, but the attempt to undermine human freedom. Freedom is just one example of a transcendent thing that the leaders of popular culture {like the President who thought movies on DVD were a respectable gift to the Prime Minister of Britain; if that isn't popular culture I don't know what is} are ready to sacrifice to their god, the god of Now. Today. Crisis. Whatever his name is, we know him and we see him in the daily news.

Ahem.

Building a culture will take a generation at least. Because of this, it starts in the home with our own children. But it doesn't end there. Popular culture has come a long way since Myers wrote this book in the 80s. It is literally everywhere now. We each have our own little sphere, our own little jobs to do. How do you build the fortress of a good culture, a culture that represents what is good, true, lasting, and beautiful?

We each lay our own bricks, one brick at a time. A good brick we can all lay is the brick called hospitality. Snatch someone you know from the fray, bring them home, and introduce them to Christ our True Rest.

_________________

Links:
The Media-Free Childhood
Redeeming the Time
Cindy's Post for More!

09 March 2009

Thoughts on "Me Time"

Sallie wrote a bit concerning that phenomena known among women as "me time" today as an introduction to her new poll. Cindy also discussed "me time" in the context of Facebook back in January, and raised quite a ruckus {and I'm sure she appreciates me bringing it back up}. "Me time" seems to be a topic in the many battles of the mommy wars, right up there with breastfeeding/bottle feeding and scheduled/demand feeding.

I have a few thoughts on "me time" that I was going to write as a comment on Sallie's blog and it turned into a post, so here they are.

Defining "Me Time"

I think sometimes reasonable people think they disagree when they don't because we don't bother to define our terms. For instance, in the comments of Cindy's post, for instance, one mother mentioned that in her past she had qualified eating and showering as "me time." I would say that such things are not what is meant by "me time" within popular culture {as expressed by BabyCenter.com or Parents Magazine}.

The articles that I have read over the years are referring to time spent in pursuing the self. I don't mean this disparagingly, by the way. It is just the only way I know how to put it. The idea is that Mother have time to do whatever it is she wants to do, whatever she is interested in, and so on. Some women have "girl night" or "mom's night out" for this purpose. Other women just like to get out alone and run a few errands without having to buckle four car seats {ahem}. These things are not inherently selfish or harmful, but please note that they are outside the normal duties of motherhood, wifehood, as well as the normal realms of hygiene and so on.

To Need or Not To Need, That is the Question

Before I start, I think I should mention that I do not consider the spiritual disciplines to be part of "me time." They are time spent doing what a human was created first and foremost to do, glorify our Creator. Now, if I insisted that I needed five hours per day of uninterrupted spiritual activity, there would be something wrong with this picture because I would be spiritualizing the neglect of the duties entrusted to me by God. But very few people are extreme like this, and reading our Bibles and praying and so on is a natural and necessary part of a life lived well.

I have heard both introverts and extroverts call "me time" a need. I am really, really hesitant to call it a need, even though I have reached times in motherhood where I was just about ready to throw in the towel, and I also have parents who sometimes call me and tell me they are coming to get my children when they see that I am reaching my end {like on a high-discipline day}.

I think of "me time" in the same categories as I do mandatory date nights and vacations. I have heard many people talk about how stressful life is and how they need a vacation.

My thought here is that we are settling for second best, which at the same time puts us at a disadvantage. What we really need is something above and beyond all of these things {in my opinion--this is just what I think I've learned, not something explicit in Scripture}. And not having this other thing we need brings us to a point of desperation where we think we need something more immediately accessible, like "me time" or a date night or a vacation. And because we are desperate, we have trouble truly enjoying those nice things when we actually get them, plus we are grumps when we don't get them.

The Nature of the Need

The real need here is a rediscovery of the art of living. As our post-industrial culture has immersed itself in technology, the art has been lost, and despair sets in. Technology allows us to get a lot more done in a lot less time in a far less satisfying way.

To go back to the comments in Cindy's post, I remember that there was one commenter there who was raised Mennonite. Think almost-Amish, with the long black dresses and the horse-drawn carriage. She compared their society to ours. Can you imagine an Amish woman demanding "me time"? Probably not. I certainly can't. We tend to hold up these groups and act like they are this special type of people, more self-less, more generous, more sacrificial, and so on. One thing we might be missing is that they don't demand such things because they have created a life that is actually livable, day in and day out.

The Mennonite/Amish life does not consist of iPhones, computers, or microwaves. It isn't full of rushing from T-ball to ballet to soccer to home {which is a place only for sleeping}. There is no rush-hour traffic, no blaring television, no noisy radio.

All of these things about our culture that I listed aren't necessarily bad, but they make up a life that, when all put together, most of us find unbearable and unsatisfying.

And we want to escape it.

Better Off?

Of course I can't write a post without plugging one book or another, so might I suggest reading Better Off?This book espouses what author Eric Brende calls the "Minimite" lifestyle: the least amount of technology to give the maximum amount of benefit. Within the pages, I've been discovering a lot of "technology" in the form of tools that I didn't know existed. Tools that are satisfying to the mind, the eye, and the soul. Technology which eases what would otherwise be a difficult life without eclipsing any of its joys.

Brende writes:
Since when had the Millers abstained from technology? The evidence was everywhere and inescapable: the cultivators, the buggies, the canning equipment, the countless other basic utensils and implements. Evidently technology itself was not taboo, only technologies that interfered with this plain sect's aims. Put positively, our neighbors chose devices they thought would benefit them--the minimum necessary to maximize their ends.

Building a Livable Life

Early on in my motherhood journey, I wanted out. I was completely overwhelmed. I'd like to say it got easier after a year or two of experience, but actually having two children was even harder, at least until that second child was one. And then, as I began to read, I discovered that things didn't have to be so unbearable. Our life needed certain things in it in order to be the sort of life we were happy with. My life at home with the children {without Si} needed: more discipline, better work ethic, more time outside in the sun, purpose, structure, laughter, good books shared aloud, contentment, a garden, homemade music, the list goes on. It also needed less: less television, less noise, running of errands, eating out, women's weekday Bible studies, sloth, focus on money {or lack thereof}, keeping up with far too many old acquaintances, and so on. This is my personal list. I don't know what other people need and I don't pretend to.

What I thought I needed at the time was a housekeeper, babysitter, and Starbucks, which is to say things that I thought could help me keep my typical modern life going. But I was wrong in the sense that those things would only help me maintain a life that I didn't actually find livable.

Well, perhaps I wasn't wrong about the Starbucks.

But I digress.

Many Hands Make Light Work

Wherever I have read about the Amish and other Plain People, the saying many hands make light work comes up. These groups tend to work collectively. Of course, so do factory-workers. But Plain People tend to live integrated lives, so work is also fun is also social. Conversely, simple jobs that have no need for "many hands" are work and also enjoyable tasks that leave room for prayer and personal ruminations. The life itself has more downtime than I ever imagined from a people who spend their whole lives tilling the soil. It is said that one of the favorite activities of the Amish is to "go visiting." I also remembering about a couple who met twice daily to milk cows together. It was the Amish-version of a date night. Sharing a task can, as Eric Brende explains about manual labor in general, once mastered, allow the mind to soar away to great heights. In fact, Brende goes to far as to say this labor is liberating to the mind while also good for the body.

But the concept of many hands can also be extended to the difficult times in life. Even the Amish have hard times. A barn burns down, there is death in the family, bad things happen to good people, right? Well, self-sustaining communities are also bonded together in a way foreign to highly technological societies. In those hard times, neighbors will show up and help you. Food will arrive. Comfort will be given. If your barn burned, all the men in the neighborhood will raise you a new one.

Simple lives are quiet lives, leaving room for an introvert like me to naturally have time to think. Simple lives have space in them, I guess I could say.

What next?

Time is better spent pursuing a livable life. Paring down and simplifying leaves room for naturally-occurring "me time" if that is what we must call it {I hate the phrase, personally, but it seems to have stuck over the years}. This is probably the most overlooked aspect of homeschooling. It naturally lends itself to a simple life. The children and parents aren't racing daily to and from school, to and from extra-curriculars. There aren't pressures on the children to keep up with the technological life. And so on.

I look forward to reading what Eric Brende has to say about living a plain life. I've only read the first third of the book so far. Si finds it interesting that the back of the book explains that Mr. Brende has degrees from Yale, Washburn, and MIL, yet he "makes his living as a rickshaw driver and a soap maker."

03 March 2009

All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter Ten

This post is a two-for-one. As I was reading Brian Godawa's article in the latest epistula, I felt a blog post coming on. Hours later, as I was gingerly flipping the pages of Ken Myers and considering my weekly book club post, I made a decision. Why in the world would I need to critique Godawa when Myers already did it, and twenty years in advance at that!

A Little Background

It is important to know, if you are not reading along, that Chapter Ten of All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes is called Popular Culture's Medium: The Entertainment Appliance. It is about television specifically, and the cultural domination of words by images in general.

It is also important to know that Brian Godawa is the author of a book that we own and generally like called Hollywood Worldviews. More importantly, Mr. Godawa is the author of the screenplay for one of my top-five favorite films, To End All Wars.

With that said, I completely and totally disagree with Godawa's assertion in his epistula article {called God Loves Movies}, where he asserts:
God loves movies. Movies are visually dramatic stories, and in the Bible, the dominant means through which God communicates His truth is visually dramatic stories—not systematic theology, not doctrinal catechism, and not rational argument. A survey of the Scriptures reveals that roughly thirty percent of the Bible is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws. Therefore, seventy percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative. Sure, God uses words, rationality and propositions to communicate his message. But modernist Christianity has neglected to understand how much more important visual imagery, drama and storytelling are to God.
Such poor logic really shouldn't be allowed by folks from Veritas Press, who are supposed experts in classical education. This is a logical misstep on Mr. Godawa's part, and I am wondering why the editors at epistula didn't catch it.

I love that God uses stories. I love that Jesus told stories. But we have access to those stories because they were {a} told orally and {b} written down using words. God did not use images to communicate very often at all. If I use Mr. Godawa's reasoning, I think I could also assert {and more rightly so as far as logic goes} that graffiti might be acceptable since God wrote on a wall in the Old Testament.

Ahem.

Moving Pictures, a Limited Medium

Moreover, Godawa begins to back up his claim by saying:
Movies are a visual medium. Cinematic composition, color, light, and movement confer emotional states and embody symbolic meanings and ideas with deep effect. Consider the sense of awe at the majestic panoramic depiction of good battling evil in The Lord of the Rings.
This is funny because, as much as I like those movies, I believe they now hold my imagination in bondage. Whereas before I imagined Frodo according to the text {forty years old, for instance}, I now only picture Elijah Wood.

Now, I'm not about to say that God doesn't like movies. I'm just saying that Godawa's logic is poor.

I would suggest that movies are almost nothing like stories told using words {either aloud or written}. Myers writes:
Any idea of motion is much easier to communicate in pictures {especially in moving pictures} than any idea of being. The simplest verb in all human language, to be, is the hardest to present visually. Yet it is the verb that God used to define Himself as the great I AM.
The important part here is that stories founded upon words rather than images are rooted in the reality of human existence rather than action.

Pictures also tend to cut us off from the past. They cannot easily communicate like or dislike. They are completely subjective in nature:
[I]mages are wholly inadequate to express what ought to be, what ought not to be, or conditions under which something will or will not happen. In images, everything is in the present tense and the indicative mood. Images are very nonjudgmental and undemanding. This poses some obvious problems for theology and ethics.
Myers then explains the nasty result of the domination of the image:
A culture that is rooted more in images than in word will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.

God and Drama

Godawa goes on, in his pitch for God loving movies, to explain that movies are dramatic in nature, and God loves them because God loves drama. Then he gave examples of God's use of drama, relying heavily on the major prophets.

I agree that, when times became really tough, God did choose to use dramatic intervention in human lives. But I'm not sure that God using drama as a vivid depiction of His judgment on evil, for instance, is correlated enough with drama as fun and entertainment in the form of movies to form a foundation of solid argument. Myers writes:
Television communicates and entertains using three main forms: it tells stories, it depicts conversations, and it displays action. All three of these forms are dramatic forms, which has led critic Martin Esslin to suggest that "the language of television is none other than that of drama." Esslin says that drama is not only a language, but a "method of thinking, of experiencing the world and reasoning about it."
Myers goes on to explain how drama has taken the place of true analysis when it comes to reporting of current events. As our culture relies more and more on images, news crews find one storyline for each admittedly complicated situation. They "analyze" it by telling the story of a single man on the street through conversation. What is lost culturally is the ability to analyze in a true sense of the word and make connections between the many different things which impact the situation being reported upon.

So how is drama a "method of thinking"? Myers explains:
[E]ven at its best, television is a means of promoting the immediate experience as the dominant way of dealing with life. Reflection, analysis, and reasonable discrimination are discouraged. Eslin argues that in dramatic communication, the "linguistic element, insofar as it is concerned with the transmission of abstract ideas, may often come very far down our ladder, after gesture and movement, after costume, even after the impact of setting." Abstract ideas are, however, essential to the maintenance of the social order; freedom, justice, and duty, to name a few abstractions, can be illustrated by drama, but understanding the essence of them requires the analytic powers of language.

[snip]

Even if all of the entertainment on television was inoffensive to Christian ethics and of the highest artistic merit, its form of communication {form of knowing} encourages the aversion to abstraction, analysis, and reflection that characterizes our culture at all levels.

Movies are a Story?

Mr. Godawa says that "Movies are first and foremost stories." He then explains that since the Bible is the story of God's intervention in history, therefore God loves movies. First of all, this doesn't logically follow. Just because God wrote a story doesn't mean that God loves stories, nor does it mean that God loves all stories.

But I'd actually like to debate the point of movies being a story in the first place. I'd say they are...and they aren't. The stories of the Bible, and all stories for thousands of years had a foundation in language. What I mean is, the story was communicated using words. This created a story that was, for the most part, absolute in nature. Think of Aesop. He tells these wonderful, wise stories, but because he is using words, there is no room for misunderstanding.

Jesus did likewise. Most of His parables are followed by explicit interpretation, which keeps us from running away with the story and using it for our own purposes.

Movies, on the other hand, are experiences more than they are stories. They are experiences which often tell a story, but they are experiences first and foremost. I like movies. Si and I probably watch an average of three per month. I am not anti-movie. But the thing about movies is that they are completely subjective, as experiences often are. There are certain Christian movies that try to overcome this fact and preach in one way or another. And you know what? Those movies often seem like bad ones to us. This is because the medium is not meant for preaching, and it isn't even meant for telling didactic tales. It is meant to offer an escape into another world.

Mr. Godawa ends his article with this:
Because of our modern western bias toward rational theological discourse, we are easily blinded to the biblical emphasis on visually dramatic stories. We downplay the visual as dangerous or irrational, while God embraces the visual as a vital to His message. We elevate rational discourse as superior and dramatic theater as too emotional or entertainment-oriented, while God elevates drama equally as part of our imago dei. We consider stories to be quaint illustrations of abstract doctrinal universal truths, while God uses stories as his dominant means of incarnating truth. God loves movies.
Do you see the logic here? Essentially, Godawa is saying that stories are a part of what it means to be human and have a culture. Movies are a story. Therefore, God loves movies. {I might have botched the syllogism just a little.} I would debate the idea that movies are a story in the traditional sense. I would grant that movies often fill the human need for story, but I would say that they do this in a superficial way.

Allow me to, um, tell a story. I once had a professor. She was an obviously lonely person. She was an instructor in one of my media classes, and she was up on all the latest shows. Through the course of the class, it because evident to me that one of the reasons she was up watching all of these TV shows was that it filled her need for human companionship. She was a very large woman living a painfully small life, and TV gave her a sense of intimacy and connection. {Myers talks about this in his book.} Even though TV did this for her, the fact remained that she was in reality isolated from others. She didn't have real friends other than the cast of Friends. TV was a substitute, and a poor one at that.

I think movies actually work in a similar way when it comes to story. We humans have a need for stories. But stories were traditionally used to pass on culture, virtue, wisdom, and so on. They ran deeply. Movies are {for the most part} a shallow substitute. We feel like we've experienced a story. But because it is image-based, it is as Myers says, which is to say that nothing abstract has been communicated, at least not specifically.

My hunch is that Godawa doesn't have a broad reading experience with traditional stories. If he did, he would know that great stories are filled with kernels of truth that are explicit in the text rather than implicit in an image. I think of Howard Pyle, great writer of fairy tales, who will say things like "the stepmother was as beautiful as she was wicked and as wicked as she was beautiful and this is often true with very beautiful women." The story will then dramatically illustrate the extreme wickedness and the extreme beauty and then overtly teach young men to beware dazzling beauty.

When you take away the words of the story, you are left with images which may or may not lead you to any knowledge of conniving women, depending on your disposition. The movie as a medium doesn't naturally generalize itself. In fact, we could take Mr. Godawa's own screenplay, which is a beautifully written tale of essentially a great books curriculum taught in a prisoner of war camp. I love his movie, I really do. But I don't think it extrapolates itself in such a way that the viewer walks away seeing any need to enrich himself with great books. The typical viewer does not see that great books could elevate him from the prison of his own mundane life.

The Bottom Line

I'm not advocating total abstinence from movies. But I also think we shouldn't be sitting around trying to pretend they are something they aren't. They are a substitute for reading most of the time, and they are contributing to a culture that is becoming increasingly unable to reflect and analyze. Reflection and analysis automatically take place when reading a story, but this only happens deliberately when a person watches the average moving picture.

An Exception

I think an exception needs to be made here for LOST. LOST is interesting in that it has folks pouring through old books, studying John Locke, Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham and so on. LOST reaches back into the written world in a way that encourages us to want to understand that world because we see that it has significance within the show in a way that isn't overt. In this sense, LOST encourages great books reading in a way that To End All Wars cannot. Because of this, I feel I can applaud LOST, and its reliance on curiosity as an engine, even though it might come to a disappointing end.

And Finally

I would compare Godawa's assertions with Comenius. In a recent email from New College Franklin, the school's rooting in Comenius' ideal of pansophism was explained. Tenant two is where I have interest today:
II. WORD BASED

God reveals himself first and most particularly in words, and so literary substance is at the root of pansophism and classical education. The foundation of this principle comes from Christ the Logos-Word. Christ the Incarnate Word and the Scriptures are God's specific revelation, and this literary prominence carries over into all other subjects and disciplines. For instance, the study of physics means reading works of physics, not solely doing experiments in labs. Reading is the core of all disciplines.
The concept of Christ-as-Word isn't something to be taken lightly. After all, God dramatically created the world...with a Word.