Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.

Nebby

 

 

Book Review: Minds More Awake

Dear Reader,

Recently Anne E. White’s book, Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason, was free for a few days in the Kindle edition. Perhaps you, like I, saw it on various CM groups and snagged a copy.

I have read mine now and wanted to share with you my thoughts on it. As with many of my book reviews, this is really more of a “book response.” What I am going to give you are my own impressions and thoughts as I read this relatively short volume.

White’s title implies that she is going to present us with something overarching – “The Vision of Charlotte Mason.” If this is indeed her aim, I applaud the effort. Charlotte herself wrote six thick volumes; that is a lot to take in all at once and much of it is theory more than practical how-tos. As White makes clear, there is not just one way to do a CM education. She uses an analogy from the kitchen, saying that Charlotte’s approach was not “a big fat cookbook” with all the steps spelled out (Kindle loc. 94). The heart of CM is not a to-do list but the philosophy behind it. Summing up this philosophy, then, is a reasonable and noble goal.

My main issue with Minds More Awake is simply that I don’t see the main thrust of Charlotte’s “Vision” as White does. I have been thinking about this so much, and wrestling with it, that I went ahead and wrote another post recently on what I think the key to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is. You can read that here.

There is a lot in Charlotte’s writings. White comes away with one point; I get another; you might find still another idea that captivates you. This is actually the test of a good living book – that we can all come away with different ideas. What I have to say may seem critical because I do come away with different ideas but I am not sure I can in the end say that my take on it all is closer to Charlotte’s ideas than White’s is. I hope to be able to meet Miss Mason some day and ask her 😉

What, for White, is the vision of Charlotte Mason? She begins and ends her discussion with the Way of the Will. When I first read Charlotte’s talk of “the Way of the Will,” I had what Oprah would have called an “aha moment.” I am not sure, like White, that this is the key to Charlotte’s philosophy, but it is a very good idea and one our modern society is sadly lacking.

I was a little disappointed, however, in how White presents this idea. I did not feel like she defines the Way of the Will clearly. In the first chapter, she describes overhearing a mom and daughter in a dressing room fighting over clothing choices. Though she doesn’t bring the idea home, what she implies is that the mom should not impose her choices on the daughter (in this scenario the daughter’s choices seem more conservative, but whether they are or not is not really relevant to the point). If all I knew of what Charlotte calls the Way of the Will were from this book, I would think that it is about letting our children choose and even about teaching them to choose rightly.

This seems on the surface to fall in line with Charlotte’s first principle : Children are Born Persons. We should not intrude upon their personalities by imposing our own wills. And this is true as far as it goes. But it is not the Way of the Will. When Charlotte speaks of the Way of the Will she is not talking about us following our wills but about us bending our wills to a greater standard, to something outside ourselves.

The Way of the Will for Charlotte Mason is more about “Not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It is about not doing what we want. It is about doing what we ought, even and especially when it is not what we will. Our modern use of the word willful, as in “that is a willful child,” is exactly the opposite of what the Way of the Will means. A willful child will have his own way. The Way of the Will is about submitting our wills to something grander.

As White presents it, the Way of the Will seems to be about choosing and the role of education is to teach us to choose well. She spends some time discussing specific subjects – math and Plutarch, among others. When we teach these things, when we present good, living books, she says, we give our children the input they need to learn to choose well.

If the goal of education is to learn to choose well, the goal of life is something else. This quote from the end of Minds More Awake seems to encapsulate White’s thoughts. Having just quoted Jean Vanier on the importance of making choices, she says that:

“Charlotte Mason said the same thing: that the function of the Will is to choose, and that character means understanding responsibility. How is the Will enabled to make choices that are not only morally right, but compassionate and people-supporting?” (Kindle loc. 1730)

There is a lot packed in here. There is the idea of the Will as choosing, but there is also something more. There is a goal – to choose what is morally right and beyond that what is “compassionate” and “people-supporting.” Elsewhere White speaks of “ecology and stewardship” (Kindle loc. 405). She does not lay out her own philosophy and goals clearly but I begin to get the idea of what she values. These are not bad things, but to me they are not the main things.

In White’s defense, I will say that one of Charlotte Mason’s better known sound-bites (if you’ll pardon the anachronism) tells us that the goal of education is not “how much they know” but “how much they care.” White’s own philosophy seems to be about caring – for the environment and for people. Again, these are not bad things, but I am also not convinced that Charlotte was using “care” as we now do (and we do tend to throw that word around a lot in our society). I fear we are reading our own modern ideas of what caring means into Charlotte’s statement.

Elsewhere Charlotte says that the goal of life and therefore of education is relationship, first of all with our Creator and secondarily with His creations – both people and the material world (I discussed this concept and gave references from CM’s writings in this earlier post). When Charlotte speaks of caring, I think this is what she is referring to – having relationships. Relationship is intimacy. If I have a relationship with a person, I know him. I can say what he will do in a given circumstance. I don’t just know facts about him; I know his personality. We can have this same level of understanding of things and events, from the Crimean War to toadstools. To know something or someone in such a way makes it almost impossible not to care for them, but it is also much more than caring. It is deeper.

There is a lot I liked in this book, especially when it comes to White’s discussion of the specifics. Overall, I am not sure it is a book I could recommend to those new to Charlotte Mason’s ideas. I feel that she overemphasizes Charlotte’s first principle – “Children are born persons” – focusing too much on the individual’s right to choose. The result is that the concept of the Way of the Will becomes about our choosing – choosing well, yes, but still us choosing – and not about submitting ourselves to the Will of Another. The goals White presents are also different from my goals for my children. I can’t say for sure what Charlotte did mean when she asked “how much they care” but I feel that we are missing something if we use that word “care” (especially in the modern sense which often requires little real knowledge or, ironically, real caring).

There is more I could say about this book, good and bad, but so as to not lose sight of the main points, I think I will leave it there.

Nebby

Book Review: The Liberated Imagination

Dear Reader,

I recently finished Leland Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. This is my third (I think?) Ryken book and my overall impression of it is much the same as the others — a pretty good book that made me think but the author and I are not 100% on the same page when it comes to things Christian and theological.

I am not very informed when it comes to art, and especially to art criticism and the theory behind it, but I have one child who is  a born artist; my intention is to have her read this book next school year (she’ll be in 10th grade then; this is high school level or above). Though I’m sure I didn’t get all of what Ryken was saying since I am not familiar with other Christian works on art, this was not a very hard read. It was just newer material for me. There is a lot of what Ryken said, about education and literature particularly, that I liked and agreed with. I don’t know if he has ever heard of Charlotte Mason but I think he’d like her educational philosophy.

I’ll start with the negatives so as to not end on a down note. My sense from this and the other books I’ve read by Ryken is that his Christian slant is different than mine. In this context, discussing art and the Christian, it becomes clear that we have very different views of how worship should look. This is not a huge surprise since my view, and that of my denomination, the RPCNA, is pretty counter-cultural these days. I adhere to the regulative principle which says we should only worship God how He has told us to. What this means is no modern music (only psalms a capella), no statues, no pictires, etc. Obviously, this is going to lead to some difference when we start talking about using art to the glory of God. I believe art, of all kinds, can still be done to the glory of God, but most of it is going to happen outside of the corporate worship of the Church. Ryken doesn’t spend a lot of time on how art can and should figure into worship an dperhaps it is unfair to expect him to devote too much time to this topic but it is an issue Christians need to consider.

Beyond this, I think there is a deeper theological divide between us. Ryken, as he has in other books, seems at time to disparage the truth of the Bible. He speaks of “fantasy” in the Bible (p. 45). I will admit that many prophetic passages are fantastical, but when we label them “fantasy” with no caveat we imply that they are not true. I do believe such passages are true on at least the level that the prophet truly saw what he reports.

Near the end of the book Ryken speaks on people as being “capable of moral and spiritual choice” and even “capable of redemption” (p. 235). As a reformed Christian, I would not speak this way. His language goes even beyond the idea common in our day that people are free to choose the salvation provided by Christ. When he talks of being “capable of redemption” he implies that we have a hand, at least, in our own redemption, an idea which I utterly reject.

Despite these differences, Ryken does have  a lot to say that I like. His view of the role of art is good. When he mentions education, he is right on target, and his view of leisure time is quite interesting. I may come back to these ideas in future posts.

By far my favorite part of this book is how Ryken relates ideas and art. This is where he sounds particularly CM. “Art,” he says, “aims to convey not primarily the facts of life but the truth and meaning of those facts. Art is not about things as they are, but about things as they matter” (p. 26). He makes an intriguing and well-taken point that if we could boil down a work of art (I term I use broadly here to include music and literature as well) to just a list of ideas than we could just read those ideas, we would not need the art (p. 128). But this is not the case. We cannot remove the ideas from their casing, if you will. This is why, in a Charlotte Mason education, we give ideas in the form of living books (and art and music). It is not just a candy coating that makes the ideas palatable. The form, the environment the ideas come in, is just as important as the ideas themselves. You cannot take one without the other. The picture I get is not of ideas, like vitamins, in a sugary coating that is the art or living books, but of two vitamins which the body cannot absorb wthout each other. Both are vital but they must enter together.

But I am digressing but Ryken’s book. Here is how he puts it:

“Exactly what is it that enables the arts to express enduring truth? What do they add to the facts that the news does not? They give us the event plus the meaning. A science textbook gives us the physical facts about nature; a Constable landscape painting or a nature lyric by Wordsworth gives us a sense of the moral meaning of a landscape.” (p. 34)

Thus art (and again I speak of it here in all its forms) illuminates reality (p. 110); it opens is to new experiences (p. 36); it teaches us to cope with our problems (p. 27).

Ryken goes beyond this and, acknowledging that not all ideas are good and true (p. 126), gives us tools to analyze and consider art from a Christian perspective (see pp. 145, 152-53, 169-70, 172-73). Here I find his work very valuable on a practical level, especially as I have children who will be looking at and evaluating nay kinds of art.

Though Ryken and I might not see eye to eye on a number of very important issues, his book was quite helpful and I did enjoy reading it. More than that, I am quite happy to have found it for my daughter as it is a quite accessible, practical and helpful introduction to the topic of art and art criticism from a Christian perspective.

Nebby

Living Book List: The Gilded Age

Dear Reader,

Once again here are the books we’ve been using in our homeschool. This time the topic is the Gilded Age, that gaudy but peaceful era at the end of the 1800s.

Living Books on the Gilded Age

Our spine book (the one  I read aloud to all the kids) was once again from Henry Steel Commager’s series The American Destiny. Volume 9 is on the Gilded Age.

 

Among other things, the gilded age is the age of invention. Books on inventors and inventions abound. For the elementary crowd, check out Robert Quackenbush’s books. I had my 5th grader read Ahoy! Ahoy! Are You There? A Story of Alexander Graham Bell and Along Came the Model T! How Henry Ford Put the World on Wheels. We also read another book on the Model T, Peter Spier’s Tin Lizzie which follows the life of one particular car.

gilded13

Still on the topic of inventors, my 10th grader read Robert Silverberg’s Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry. The bits of how Edison went about inventing were quite interesting.

 

 

Another big Gilded Age topic on which you’re sure to find a lot of books: Immigration. We read some picture books on the subject: Rosemary Wells’ Streets of Gold and Eve Bunting’s Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story which tells the journey of the first children to pass through Ellis Island. I also had my youngest read R. Conrad Stein’s The Story of Ellis Island from the Cornerstones of Freedom series (but see this post on avoiding the newer version of the series).

Our next big topic is factories. Again there are a lot of books available. We chose The Lowell Mill Girls: Life in the Factory  which uses some letters to tell the story of life in the factories and The Mill Girls by Bernice Selden which tells if three girls living in the factory system. I read Kids during the Industrial Revolution by Lisa Wroble to my two youngest. It is a simple book and I would not call it living. My 9th grader read Albert Marrin’s Fesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. I love Marrin’s books. Like most of his, this one focuses on one event but manages to tell quite  a lot in the process. Plus it was an interesting read.

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Another Marrin book that I wish we have had time to get to but didn’t: The Spanish-American War. This one is probably high school level.

gilded14

With industrialization come the titans of business. My 6th grader read Andrew Carnegie by Clara Ingram Judson. It seemed like quite a good book and was middle school level.

The Gilded Age seems to have had m0re than its share of tragedies. I read my younger two Robert Quackenbush’s There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight about the Great Chicago Fire (sorry, I don’t know why that one picture insists on being upside-down). It is a poetic account. My 10th grader read about the Chicago fire as well in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America. I consider this book a find. You can tell the author loves his subject. The last inferno is 9/11. I think we will get it again for that when the time comes.

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If you like art, you might want to check out Shirley Glubok’s The Art of America in the Gilded Age. It is a relatively short, easy to read book, but I had my 9th grade art lover read it.

Finally, we move on to life in the Gilded Age.

 

My 5th grader read Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm by Carla Stevens. It is a chapter book on a blizzard that hit New York City unawares. It is more of a 2nd-4th grade level. She also read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes about a Polish girl in Connecticut and The Green Ginger Jar by Clara Ingram Judson, a mystery story set in Sa Francisco’s Chinatown.  If you have time, you can check out Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. If you are pressed for time, there is a very abridged version for kids, The Boy’s Ambition. Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry doesn’t quite fit. It is about life on a Polynesian Island but you can use it to talk about the Hawaiian islands which the US acquired at this time.  Lastly, I had my 9th grader read Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes about Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco.

Happy reading!

Nebby

A Living Book on Writing

Dear Reader,

Writing seems to be one of the subjects which sends homeschoolers of all stripes into fits.  I’m not sure if it actually is tough to teach, but we all seem to think it is.  When I read through Charlotte Mason message boards, it seems like one area in which we are all tempted to abandon Charlotte’s principles and use some sort of prepackaged curriculum. So what if there were a living book that taught writing? How great would that be? I think I have found just such a book.

I obtained On the Writing of English by George Townsend Warner when it was the free book of the day on Forgotten Books. Though it may not be free today, you can still get the book on their website in various digital formats (I get nothing for promoting them, I promise; I’ve just fallen in love with the site).

Warner’s book was written in the early 1900s and is addressed to the student who is called upon to write essays. I found this book highly readable. It’s language is simple and conversational, its tips relevant, and its tone often humorous.   The goal of this book, as Warner states it, is to teach the student “to think, and to write down his thoughts in good English; that is all” (pp. 1-2). Along the way he covers “the way to gather and sort material . . .[and] the commonest pitfalls which lie in wait for the beginner” (p. 2).

This approach taken by Warner is not that of a highly structured 5-paragraph essay. That is a good thing in my opinion. He discusses sentences and paragraphs and always having a topic sentence, but he also encourages variety in the structure and wording of one’s essay. Frankly, I find it a refreshing alternative to a lot of the rigid curricula which are out there. He says, for example:

“Variety in the shape of sentence is needful; so is variety in words when you can get it. But never shrink from using the same word over and over again when it is the right word.” (p. 55)

And regarding adjectives, he says:

“Some beginners usher in every noun with an adjective clinging to it, like the men and women going down arm-in-arm to dinner.” (p. 72)

Warner instead urges caution with adjectives which I find a refreshing change from some of the curricula out there which require certain numbers of adjectives and the like.

On the Writing of English may not be for everyone. It is not a curriculum as such but a handbook on writing. I happen to think that a child who has been reared on living books could go through this volume a time or two and end up quite a good writer. I plan to test this theory on my own kids so I can let you know how it goes. Though so far I have only read it myself and not handed it over to them, this is definitely on my “highly recommended” list.

Nebby

 

Book Review: Deschooling Society

Dear Reader,

In my recent post on deschooling, I mentioned “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich (read it online as a pdf here). I’m not sure if this article from the 1970s coined the term “deschooling” but it certainly seems to be the one to have popularized it. Because Illich is discussing society more than the individual, I didn’t delve too deeply into it in my earlier post. I did, however, read it and though I don’t agree entirely with Illich, he does have  a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say.

Illich’s basic thesis is that institutions are bad. They create poverty, not just in monetary terms but various kinds of poverty. They breed dependence and thus perpetuate themselves. He focuses on institutionalized education (i.e.the schools) as his prime example but it is by no means his sole target. Another example would be institutionalized medicine. As we have come to have licensed doctors and hospitals, we have come to think that we need them for every small illness. We no longer trust anyone else to treat us. Illich chooses to focus his attack on the schools because they are a relatively recent innovation and because the teachers themselves are dissatisfied. Both of these make it more likely that we would be able to do away with the schools. Though he speaks of “deschooling society” and though the changes he looks for are ultimately societal, Illich does acknowledge that they must come about one individual at a time.

“Deschooling Society” is full of wonderful quotes like “For most men the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school” (p. 2) and “School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching” (p. 22). I heartily agree with the sentiment and I can see Illich’s point that one the biggest things schooling has taught us is that we need trained teachers. How many homeschooling parents have been asked if they have a teaching degree? The common assumption is that one cannot teach without proper training. This is rubbish. Schools have taught us, more than anything else, that we need schools. Even when they fail, Illich says, we just throw more money at them and conclude that education must be very difficult indeed and that more specialists are necessary (p. 8).

Illich does not just outline a problem, he also presents a view of how education should work.  “Most learning happens casually,” (p. 12) he says. He sees the place for rote learning for what he calls skills but says that most learning results from “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting” (p. 29). He proposes a system in which people have access to the “educational tools” (p. 57) they need — both physical things such as equipment and books and other people, peers to learn with and mentors who can pass on knowledge. He envisions a sort of voucher system which allows people to gain access to what they need and desire.  This is not a system which asks or dictates what should be learned but which allows people to have access and assumes that they will make the most of it.

While there is a lot here I like, there is also a fair amount I disagree with. I think most of Illich’s critiques are on target. I am not so enamored of his proposed solutions. The system he proposes is not a simple one. It would require a fair amount of regulation and legislation in its own right. He admits that there would need to be a small class of educational specialists to operate it. It is basically a governmental solution and I would venture to say is institutional as well, though to a lesser degree as it does not require anyone to participate or dictate how they should participate (Illich actually spends a chapter talking about just such distinctions — the difference between convivial and manipulative institutions as he terms them).

But even if it were not for the bureaucracy it seems to require, I could still not get behind Illich’s scheme entirely. While I agree with him that the desire for knowledge is innate, the fact is that most of us have been damaged by the “school mindset” and have lost that desire. As I discussed in my article on deschooling, I don’t think we can assume that will be recovered simply by removing the institutional schools. All-in-all I think Illich, like the unschooling movement, relies too much on the individual to acquire that which he needs. I just don’t have that high a view of human nature 😉 People have natural tendencies as well to laziness and dishonesty. I can’t see a system such as he proposes working well.

Interestingly, we have in some measure adopted one of Illich’s proposals. Remember that his article was written in the 1970s, before the internet. He suggested that people should be given ways to connect with their peers with similar interests. He even envisioned a kind of computer-based matching service that would aid in this, alongside more old-fashioned approaches like community bulletin boards. Now, on a voluntary basis, we do have this ability in spades. Anyone can go online and find those with similar interests. And we have done this. Personally I have connected with other homeschoolers, based on both locality and philosophy, and with other parents of children with Type 1 Diabetes. The internet has been invaluable for this and I am very glad for it. But I think we can also see that people use the internet to rally around very frivolous topics as well, not to mention downright evil ones. My point is that we have inadvertently implemented one aspect of Illich’s idea and the results show us that, while there are benefits, there are also ways to misuse or trivialize the system.

Even if people were to seek out knowledge through systems such as Illich proposes, he leaves it entirely up to the individual what they will pursue. I prefer an education with a broad base. Like Charlotte Mason, I am wary of the specialist who may often become an eccentric. A broad base, which one is less likely to pursue on their own, allows greater stimulation and creativity.

Ideas matter. And what lies below the problems that I have with Illich’s view are really  very different views of humanity.  He says at one point that deschooling is “the root of human liberation” (p. 34). He ends his book by speaking of Promethean versus Epimethean man and of “the corruption of man’s self-image” (p. 80). Early on Illich calls schools a prison. If we are imprisoned by our institutions (and I think he would say all our institutions do this though he only here focuses on the schools), then our salvation comes through ridding ourselves of these institutions. And what are we saved to? Illich seems to say that the goal is a right view of man. This is clearly a humanistic view. There is a problem, yes, but we are able to get ourselves out of it (though we did get ourselves into it too) and our goal is no higher than ourselves.

There is a lot in this article to make one think and I am glad I stumbled across it. I think Illich has some interesting ideas. Some of what he says is especially intriguing in light of more recent developments, both the rise of the internet and Obamacare come to mind. In the end, I find his position humanistic and I can’t get behind a lot of what he says but I would recommend reading the article.

Nebby

 

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Dear Reader,

I have spent a long time on Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura. It is not a thin book, but beyond that there is also a lot to absorb from it. I had come to this book after many unfruitful and frustrating discussions with a recently turned Catholic friend. A large issue for him is authority in the church — Where does it come from? Who decides what the Bible means? I hoped that this book would provide some coherent answers to his questions and mine.

I am going to spend a couple of posts (at least) on The Shape of Sola Scriptura. In this first one I will attempt to give you more of a classical book review — what the book is about, what works in it, what doesn’t. In my next post I will delve deeper into Mathison’s arguments and give my own responses to them.

Mathison defines four views of the relationship between Bible and tradition. He calls them Tradition 0, 1, 2 and 3. He is a proponent of Tradition 1 which he defines as the reformation view of Sola Scriptura which views the Bible as the ultimate authority for God’s people but takes it in the context of the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith (we’ll come back to the specifics of what this means). Tradition 0 is, by his definition, a corruption of Sola Scriptura which he calls solo scriptura. It takes the Bible as the only authority, the result of which is that each Christian interprets the Bible for him or herself with no guiding principles and ultimately no uniformity in doctrine within the church. Tradition 2 adds Sacred Tradition to Scripture, a position which Mathison would say leads to the supplanting of Scripture by tradition as it is tradition which tells us what Scripture means. Lastly, Tradition 3 makes the church the authority over Scripture and Tradition, telling us what both mean. This is the view of the modern Roman Catholic Church with its Magisterium and papal infallibility.

Mathison divides his discussion into three main parts. He begins with the historical evidence from the early church on, asking what the church fathers had to say about tradition, and then moving on through the Medieval church, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, discussing ideas which arise in the process (like papal infallibility). Mathison then truns to what Scripture has to say about tradition and about its own authority and then to more theoretical arguments for sola scriptura in a section he calls “The Theological Necessity of Sola Scriptura.” The very end of the book is devoted to some common objections to the Tradition 1 view.

Mathison is really trying to do two things in this book: to present and defend the view he subscribes to and to critique competing views. While my own view is very similar, though not identical to Mathison’s, I felt that he did a much better job of critiquing the positions of others than of presenting his own.

As I said, Mathison begins with the historical evidence from the early fathers. I found this section quite convincing as it is presented. I did wonder, however, if what he gives us is an accurate and complete account of the evidence. Everybody (or almost so, some “Tradition 0” Protestants don’t care) in this battle wants to trace their own position back to the church fathers. The ones Mathison cites seem to expound a view similar to his. The problem is that the Catholics and Orthodox will both give a different series of quotes, or perhaps even different takes on the same sources, that seem to support their view. I find this one of those subjects that it is very hard for me to draw a conclusion on, like global warming and evolution. “Experts” on both sides seem to present convincing evidence until you talk to the other side’s expert and find his evidence sounds just as convincing. While the body of writings from church fathers should be a finite one, it is nonetheless a large one and is itself subject to interpretation so it is hard for me as a lay person to take it all in and say “yes, this is what the church fathers thought” or “no, that is what they thought.”

Beyond this, there is the problem of being anachronistic, of reading our modern understandings into ancient writings. When we use or read the word “tradition,” we must always ask how it is being used. The early fathers did not have the arguments we are having so they weren’t setting out to answer our questions for us. We are left trying to look back and discern how they would have seen the issue when they never framed it the way we do. Here I should say that I have some problems with how Mathison frames the whole issue. His use of the labels Tradition 0, 1, 2, and 3, I find to be a bit oversimplified and to leave out some legitimate options. I do understand that it is helpful for a book like this to be able to boil it all down, but there is a fine line between giving us helpful terms with which to discuss an issue and oversimplifying or even misrepresenting an issue through one’s terminology. I actually really liked the categories Oberman uses which Mathison briefly references in a footnote on p. 86, but Mathison himself does not choose to use them.

As Mathison moves on from the early church period into the Middle Ages and beyond, he shows how new views of the interplay of Scripture and Tradition developed. His focus is really on the Roman Catholic position and though it is not his direct object at this point in the book, he (at least as far as I am concerned) raises a lot of legitimate questions about the Roman Catholic position and its origins. In fact, I think the strongest part of the book is the questions Mathison raises about the Catholic view. I will treat these specifically in my next post on the content of the book.

Though he devotes a short section to it, Mathison does not talk much about the Eastern Orthodox view and even admits that it does not really fit his categories. Neither does he discuss other, admittedly less widely held, views or address other branches of the Christian tree such as the Oriental Orthodox churches.

A main purpose of this book is to distinguish Mathison’s Tradition 1 view from the common Protestant position which he calls Tradition 0. Proponets of the latter accept no authority other than Scripture, and Mathison does a decent job of showing that this position is quite problematic because it so very subjective and because it leads to many, many divisions in the church and undercuts any attempt at defining absolute truth.

The weakest part of The Shape of Sola Scriptura is Mathison’s defense of his own position. He does acknowledge some of the problems inherent in his own position, most notably that it is quite dependent on our definition of what the church is which is another huge can of worms. Though he defers this discussion of this issue till near the end of the book, he does attempt to address it. I did not find his arguments very convincing at this point, however, nor his definitions of what a true church is very helpful. Though he uses Charles Hodges’ definition of a true church to attempt to define the issue, I was not enamored of Hodges’ approach and Mathison does not bring the issue of apostolic succession into it at all. One can argue that there is no such thing as apostolic succession, of course, but I don’t think we can ignore the question altogether. The fact is authority in the church has to come from somewhere, and Mathison does not address where it originates or what makes the authority of a given church legitimate. His only reference to this issue is a brief statement in passing that “The corporate judgment of the Church normally operates through those who have been especially gifted by the Holy Spirit with leadership and teaching gifts” (p.272). He does not expand upon this, however, and I am left wondering how one can discern the presence of these gifts, who gets to say whether an individual has them or not, and whether there are any other criteria he would use to establish legitimate leadership in the church.

Mathison says a number of times that the only time in history when we have seen Tradition 1 as the established view of the church for any length of time is in the early church. Though he believes Tradition 1, as he defines it, is the view of Reformers like Calvin he also says that it quickly degenerated into Tradition o. As I have noted, while I personally found Mathison’s evidence on the point convincing, there is no consensus on what the view of the early church was as every group wishes to claim it for their own side. We are left then with only a brief period when Tradition 1 clearly held sway to any degree in the early days of the Reformation. If this view did not last, I am left wondering if it is at all sustainable or if it inevitably becomes supplanted by what Mathison calls a Tradition 2 view in which tradition reigns over Scripture or degenerates into a Tradition 0 view in which every man’s opinion is his only guide. And if Tradition 1 is unsustainable, is it then untenable?

My last major criticism of Mathison’s  expounding of his position has to do with how he defines the Rule of Faith, or regula fidei, by which he believes Scripture is to be interpreted. As Mathison says, “The Reformers did not reject tradition; they rejected one particular concept of tradition in favor of another concept of tradition” (p. 345). The concept they favored, or at least which Mathison, proposes is found in the creeds. This, for him, is the Rule of Faith, that standard by which we are to discern orthodox from heretical interpretations of Scripture and also by which we are to discriminate between true and false churches. Mathison does not argue this point; he does not suggest that there might be other rules or embodiments of tradition. Nor does he spend time showing particularly that this is the standard the Reformers used. That is assumed rather than shown in this book. Mathison also does not pick a creed. He mentions the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds but does not pick between them. It is worth noting that the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East do not accept the creed of Chalcedon. I assume that by his definition, then, Mathison would not consider them true churches. Personally, I am not comfortable with doing so and the Roman Catholic church, which Mathison does believe is a true church, has in recent years said of the Oriental Orthodox churches at least that their differences are minor and that they share a common faith.

Mathison at times refers to “essential doctrines.” These he finds, again, embodied in the creeds (again undefined as to exactly which creeds are included and which are excluded). In addition to using these as the regula fidei by which we are to interpret Scripture, he also uses them as the test of a true church. But the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and (most) Protestant churches all accept these creeds. If we are to look at only the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, we can add the Oriental Orthodox churches and Assyrian Church of the East to this list. And yet with this common confession we do not end up with much common belief. The whole point of this book is to show that how we view tradition relative to Scripture, what Tradition we use and what role we give it, are important. And yet in the end, Mathison picks a standard which all these churches accept though they end up in very different places on so many, many issues. The creeds themselves are open to interpretation to some degree and they provide little guidance for us in interpreting Scripture. They rule out extreme positions like that Jesus was not God, but they still leave quite a lot of room on other issues. So my biggest difference with Mathison’s position is that I do not find his definition of what Rule of Faith (which for him is the whole embodiment of tradition) we should be using very hepful. While I do agree with him in a general way on the relationship between Scripture and tradition, I am left still wondering what tradition we are to look to. Mathison’s deferral to the creeds I find very unsatisfactory. I am honestly not sure at this point how exactly I would define my own position. That is something I hope to get closer to working out in my next post in which I will delve more into the content of the book.

To sum up, then, my reactions to the book itself, I would say that The Shape of Sola Scriptura is well worth reading. It raises a lot of issues that need considering. While I am not 100% happy with Mathison’s categories, they do help us to think about the issues. He is strongest in his critiques of others’ positions, particularly of the Roman Catholic and solo scriptura positions, but he falters when it comes to defending his own position.  Ultimately, there is a lot here I agree with, but I am uncomfortable with his deferral to the creeds, and these only generally speaking, as the sole regula fidei by which we are to discern true from false interpretations.

Nebby

 

 

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