Book Review: The Christian Home School

Dear Reader,

Thank you all for continuing to give book suggestions. My latest read has been Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School (Gresham, OR: Noble Publishing Associates, 1995; originally published 1988).

Harris’ book is a bit dated (can one still realistically homeschool for $100-200 per child per year??) and I found its scope too narrow, particularly in talking about how to homeschool, but there enough good material here to make it worth perusing.  As my source indicated, there is one stellar chapter here, chapter 5: “The Biblical Basis of Education.” If you are new to homeschooling and need encouragement and the very basics of how to begin, you might appreciate the rest of the book; otherwise you can probably just skim large chunks (as I confess I did).

The Christian Home School begins with a lot of the usual scary stories about public schools. I don’t doubt the truth of these stories; there no doubt is something indeed to be afraid of. But I’m not a big fan of this approach. Harris also includes a brief history of public schooling in the United States and shows why reforming the current system is not an option.

Harris then turns his attention to Christian schools. For me as a homeschooler, this was refreshing; all the other books I have read thus far have been pro-Christina school and not even mentioned homeschooling as an option so it was nice to hear arguments for homeschooling in particular. Nevertheless, while I agree with a lot of what Harris says, both anti-Christian school and pro-homeschooling, I don’t think he is as fair and well-rounded as he could be. Let’s just say there are pros and cons in any option.

Having established the case for homeschooling, Harris then gets to the meat: the role of the Bible. Though he appears to be a fairly conservative writer, Harris’ stance is not overly fundamentalist. The Bible, he says, “isn’t intended to be a textbook for teachers and school administrators . . .But it does tell us everything we need to know to evaluate education – to tell the basic difference between good education and bad” (p. 66).

Parents are the primary educators (p. 66). This point is easily established. Harris makes the case that as our parenting is compared to God’s that we will be better parents the more we emulate God and adopt His style. While the Bible may not give us many specific instructions in how to parent, there is much we can learn from examining how God parents and educates us (p. 67). [1]

Harris finds the purpose of education in the purpose of man (p. 70). He goes on to say: “It only stands to reason, then, that one of the primary purposes of education is to prepare people to be born again and then to worship and fellowship with God” (p. 70) and again: “Thus, education is to benefit our society and the Church by equipping us to fulfill our part and take our place in the community of faith” (pp. 70-1). I agree with him in much of this — the purpose of education is found in God’s overall plan for man; and the primary purpose is for the individual but the larger society also benefits. I have a slight quibble with his phraseology, however. Harris speaks of “preparing” and “equipping” as if children are not yet a full part of the Church. I have argued here that there is no real divide between children and adults in the covenant community. Children are fully part of that community, are able to contribute to it, and are already interwoven into God’s plan (see this post, this one, and this one).

When it comes to the how of education, Harris tries to keep an open mind, allowing for various methods of education [though not unschooling (p. 88), a conclusion I agree with], but he clearly has a favorite. His own preference is for what he calls “Delight-Directed Study” which he equates with Unit Studies. Very briefly when we began homeschooling, we tried unit studies. I have some problems with the idea of unit studies (see this post or this one) though Harris’ arguments make me more amenable to his approach that I would have thought I would be. Part of the issue is that Harris shows no awareness of a living books approach to homeschooling such as Charlotte Mason advocates. I suspect this is because his book is older and the Charlotte Mason resurgence in homeschooling circles had not occurred, or at least not developed so much steam.  [More than any other approach we have followed the Charlotte Mason method in our homeschool. While I have become less enamored of her philosophy in recent years (and this series is the result of that disillusionment), hers is still the best single approach I have found.]

In reality there is much that Harris says that would fit well with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. He argues that children have an innate, God-ordained appetite for knowledge (p. 69) and advocates a broad liberal arts education (p. 71). In fact, his language is very much like Miss Mason’s when he argues for a balanced intellectual meal that will bring pleasure to the child (pp. 101-02). They also both say that education cannot and should not be accomplished through force or discipline and that the role of the parent/teacher is largely to prepare the feast (Charlotte’s image) and to wait for the child to respond, as flower bud opens (Harris’ image, p. 111). 

Harris is a bit more in the classical mode in that he sees stages on education, those his are not strictly defined (pp. 112-17). This should not surprise us given the emphasis he places on education as preparation (as I argued in this post).

Delight-directed studies, as Harris defines them, teach multiple subjects through whatever topic the child is interested in. That is, if a child has a particular interest in cats, he might do language arts by reading and writing about cats and learn math by starting a cat sitting business. This were he is most like Unit Studies and least like Charlotte Mason. Though I think in the end, there is more similarity here than I thought; Charlotte’s approach also teaches some subjects, like grammar and writing, indirectly through readings and narrations done on history or other topics.

Harris advocates delight-directed study not just because it works but because, he says, it is biblical. This is perhaps his best and most unique argument — that God intended us to have pleasure even in the things we need, from food to procreation, and that we should also find delight as we satisfy our intellectual appetites (pp. 96ff). For evidence of this he points to the Psalmist’s pleasure in his study of the law of God (Ps. 1:2 among others).

One final quibble — I am once again (as I was with Rushdoony) uncomfortable when Harris talks about education for boys versus that of girls (pp. 119-20). He argues that high school age boys should be educated for a specific career but that girls should be given a broad education so that they will be prepared to help their husbands in whatever their calling might be.  My problem with this kind of thinking is two-fold: It ignores the very real possibility that not every Christian will get married. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that it is better not to be married (1 Cor. 7:32ff) and  perhaps we would take this injunction more seriously if we didn’t start our kids off with marriage as the be-all and end-all of Christian life. Secondly, it tends to undervalue knowledge for its own sake. Harris does not go as far as Rushdoony in this but perhaps just teeters in the edge of the idea.

The bottom line is that Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School is not a book you necessarily need to run out and get right away but there is one solid good idea in here which I think we need to add to our discussion of a reformed Christian approach to education.

Nebby

[1] As a side note, I don’t agree with Harris’ definition of “to train up” in Proverbs 22:6 as “to touch the palate” (p. 68).  I have no idea where he got this. You can see my own interpretation of that verse here.

 

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Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,

Nebby

The Image of God, Revisited

Dear Reader,

I have had some feedback on my recent post on the image of God so I wanted to expand/give clarification. You  can read that post (which was itself a reworking of an earlier post) here.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to explain a little bit about where this post came from. I think as I write and to some extent each post builds a little on what has come before. If you haven’t read much here previously and/or don’t know me, you are probably not going to have a lot of context. It is very easy as a writer to think that your audience knows and understands what is in your head, but someone who doesn’t know me and hasn’t followed my convoluted train of thought can easily misunderstand where I am coming from.

Until fairly recently I was a Charlotte Mason (CM) style homeschooler and I blogged on her philosophy of education a lot. Over time, I became aware that her theology — upon which her approach to education is directly based — did not line up with mine as well as I thought it did. I ended last year with a series in which I asked the question “Is CM’s philosophy biblical?” My goal at the time was not to judge her by my own standards or those that a reformed person might ordinarily turn to (read: Calvin), but to hold her ideas up to the light of Scripture and also to place her within the scope of orthodox Christian thought. I tell you this now to try to explain how the very first version of this post came about. I looked at the image of God in Scripture specifically (as opposed to looking at what other Christians writers had to say) because my goal was to see how her ideas fit with Scripture. I included a section on Christian ideas about the image of God, not to give a thorough review of the history of thought on this huge topic, but just to give a sense of the range of thought and where she and I fit in.

A lot of Christians have said a lot of things about the “image of God.” Two thousand plus years after the birth of Christ (and many thousand more after the writing of Genesis 1), there is still no one clear definition of what this phrase means. Even within the smaller world of reformed theology, it is not a settled point. Here is what Meredith Kline said in 1999:

“When defining the imago Dei, dogmatic theology has traditionally tended to engage in an analysis of what constitutes humanness. But to answer the general question “What is man?” is not the same thing as answering the precise question “What is the image of God?”. If our objective is to discern what the biblical idea of the image of God is, it would appear necessary to abandon the traditional dogmatic wineskins, go back to the beginning of Genesis, and start afresh.” [Meredith Kline, “Creation in the Image of the Glory Spirit,” from Meredith Kline.com, 2006 (1)]

Note that Kline calls for us to abandon old concepts, to start afresh and to use the “biblical idea” as our starting place. I had not read Kline when I wrote my post, but this is essentially what I was trying to do.

The big problem with the phrase “image of God” is that we use it to convey two different ideas. Sometimes when we say “man is in the image of God,” we mean that he has inherent dignity and worth. This often comes up in conversations about abortion which makes it quite a heated, emotional topic. At other times when we say “man is in the image of God,” we are saying something about his character or characteristics. This can take different forms. To some the image of God equals a certain faculty or set of faculties such as reason or creativity. To others it means that we are spiritual and/or relational creatures. Or it may be associated with original holiness or righteousness or goodness. It may mean that we were given dominion. Or it may be some combination of these things and more besides. Simply put, it’s confusing because we use the same words to mean very different things.

I said that children are not in the image of God. That was poorly phrased not so much because of the image of God bit as the children bit. First of all it probably put you all in mind of the whole abortion issue which was not what I had in mind (I did make clear at the time that I am anti-abortion).  I said “children” because my overall topic on this blog is education. But in truth what I meant to mean was “unsaved people” or perhaps “man in his post-Fall, pre-saved state” is not in the image of God (I know, I know, you are still bothered but bear with me for a minute; I’m getting back to what bothers you in a few paragraphs). I want to be clear that I do believe in the concept of covenant children, that the children of believers are considered holy. I believe that God can save children at any age, even before birth. So in truth I never meant that all  children are not in the image of God but only those who are unsaved as well as adults who are unsaved.

Returning to the image of God — you remember I said there are two main ways we use the phrase? One has to do with man’s inherent value and one has to do with certain characteristics (however we identify them). My intent was to make a statement about the latter but I was in no way intending to deny the former.

There is an inherent tension between these two ideas. They are linked ideas because they are both tied to this phrase, “image of God,” but they are distinctive. That is largely what I was trying to show when I quoted random Christian theologians — that they all struggled with this tension and that they came up with different ways of trying to address it (again, this was just a general survey intended to give the range of Christian thought). We want to say at one and the same time that:

  • individual people, all people, have value because they are made in the image of God but–
  • people are fallen and something — which we may also equate with the image of God — has been lost or corrupted in them.

The Catholic Church eliminates the tension by distinguishing between the image and the likeness. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t think the biblical text supports this interpretation. The Dutch Reformed speak of the image in a greater and a narrower sense. The narrower was lost; the wider is still present in all people. To some degree they, like the Catholics, are just coming up with two ideas to replace one that seems to contradict itself. “Common grace” is often cited as an explanation (2). The argument goes something along the lines of “yes, man is fallen and no longer has his original righteousness which made him like God, but common grace means that even unregenerate people are still valuable enough that we recognize they mean more than the animals and we shouldn’t kill them.” A similar argument is “corrupted but not lost” which is pretty much what it sounds like — the image of God in man was severely damaged at the Fall but there is enough of his Creator still reflected in man to keep us from killing each other willy-nilly.

If I have been dissatisfied with how Augustine and the Dutch Reformed and others have dealt with the tension, some of you have been dissatisfied with what are apparently my own theological calisthenics. Essentially, what I argued was that the image of God, as the phrase is used in the Bible, refers to some quality or characteristic that was lost at the Fall. I did not mean by this to deny the inherent value of all people but to divorce the two issues. I am not the first by any means to do so. But I understand that it is still a dissatisfying answer because (a) it seems to throw the value of people, particularly the most vulnerable people, to the wind and (b) it seems to ignore the biblical connection between the image of God and the injunction against spilling human blood.

With regard to (a) I will say again that I never doubted the value of each human. Personally, when I think about abortion and other hot-button issues, I have always thought that killing a person is wrong not so much because he is in the image of God as because I have no authority over him.  Compare my child to my pet. One I can kill if I like — I have authority over him because God has given him to me. The other I cannot kill because he does not belong to me. I don’t have that kind of authority over him (3). Nor do I have authority over myself in that way. That’s why suicide is wrong. It’s why I can’t do whatever I like with my body (because it is not mine) and why you can’t do whatever you like with my body. It is an argument from Genesis 1:28, not Genesis 1:26. It also explains why the government can put to death certain kinds of criminals — because God has given it specific authority to do so.

With regard to (b) — the connection the Bible makes between the image of God and not killing each other– I’ll concede maybe I downplayed this a bit too much. But on the other hand, when I read verses like 2 Corinthians 4:4 in which Christ is called the image of God and 1 Corinthians 15:49 which says believers shall bear the image of God, it is hard for me to say that the image is something that all men bear. How can an unregenerate person bear the image of God when the image is Christ and Christ is something believers put on? I suspect that you will say I am being too narrow in my interpretation and that may be the case. But I am willing to say this: It is wrong to kill other people (or do lots of other random bad things to them) because we were all in Adam created in the image of God. However we also all in Adam lost the image of God. The elect regain it in Christ though in an imperfect form in this life.  This is a very corporate view of the image of God which sees us all as being in Adam at Creation and at the Fall. I think it actually fits kind of nicely with the creation account in which God says “let us make man, male and female, in our image” in Genesis 1 but in which Eve is not actually created until Genesis 2. Eve was made in the image of God because she came from Adam. Male and female were both in Adam in Genesis 1:26 though only a male had been created as a stand-alone sort of human being. It is the same for us — we were all in Adam at creation and in that sense we were all created in the image of God.

But perhaps I am still doing too many theological calisthenics — Why, you ask, not just say “corrupted but not lost”? I have been told that my earlier post didn’t seem very reformed, but, honestly, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about “corrupted but not lost.” I don’t want to put words in others’ mouths, but to me “corrupted but not lost” feels less reformed. If what was in us is only tarnished, one might argue, then maybe we don’t need quite as much of a Savior. One need not go down every slippery slope, of course, but it seems we could easily slip into “well, if it’s only corrupted, we can clean it up a bit ourselves” or maybe “we can at least help God out by dusting up a bit around the edges.” Lost makes me feel a lot more comfortable because what is lost we cannot get back on our own.

Summing up then, for absolute clarity (hah!)– Adam was created in the image of God in Genesis 1. Eve and all the rest of us were in Adam at this point and were thus also created in the image of God. It is wrong to spill human blood because we were created in the image in this way and also because we do not have that kind of authority over one another or even over ourselves (governments, however, have been given such authority). Adam, and the rest of humanity in him, lost the image of God at the Fall. Christ is the image of God. Believers put on Christ. We once again bear the image of God and are being transformed more and more into His image.

I’ll end with this — I think as I write but I am not a politician; I have absolutely no problem with changing my mind. I certainly don’t have all of Christian theology worked out. I am happy to have friendly discussions on this or any other topic as long as you approach me directly and respectfully. I raised the issue of what the image of God is and what it means because it relates to the nature of children which relates to education. I do not think, however, that all the fine details here are going to be important to my overall approach to education (which is still being worked out). To me this is somewhat of a subsidiary issue so while I am always happy to discuss theological issues, I don’t intend to spend a lot more time on it.

Nebby

Notes:

(1) I am citing an article from MeredithKline.com because it is what I have access to but the text seems to be identical to the beginning of his book Images of the Spirit (1999).

(2) Because just having one footnote looks bad, I’ll add that in reading Van Til’s book on education recently I was struck by his use of “common grace.” It made me think that I don’t really understand this phrase and that we need a lot more good teaching on it.

(3) Look, a third footnote! Just to clear — I know parents have authority over their children, but they don’t have the kind of authority that allows them to kill their children or to maim them or to do whatever they want with them in a million other ways.

Living Books on Ancient Rome

Dear Reader,

We wrapped up the school year by reading about ancient Rome. Each child (2 middle schoolers and 2 high schoolers) read a historical account and a book of historical fiction. We read some myth, science and art together and also Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Ancient Rome

History:

The Roman Way by Edith Hamilton — My 11th grader read this book and the similar one on Greece. Hamilton talks more about culture than history and shows the impact ad influence of the Romans.

The Roman Empire Assimov — My senior enjoys Assimov’s histories.  He is not Christian so I would take the bits that touch on Christianity with a grain of salt. He also has one on the Roman republic.

The Story of the Romans by Eva Marie Tappan — I prefer Tappan to the all-popular Guerber. My 7th grader read this one.

The Book of the Ancient Romans by Dorothy Mills — I didn’t like her book on the ancient near east but her volumes on Greece and roe are more meaty. My 8th grader read this one.

Historical Fiction:

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sinkiwicz — One of three long fictional books that were read in the house. This one is set after the time of Christ. My 11th grader read it and seemed okay with it.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace– A classic. I had my 12th grader read it.

The Robe by Lloyd Douglas — I assigned this one  to myself, and honestly couldn’t get through it all. The writing is okay, though not stellar. At time sit was engaging. But it is set at the very end and just after Christ’s time and says a lot about Him and His disciples and I found that it plays with the biblical story too much.

Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare — My 7th grader read this book by a well-known author of historical fiction.

Tiger Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks — Historical fiction from the author of the Indian in the Cupboard.

White Isle by Caroline Dale Snedeker — I had heard about Snedeker in homeschooling circles but we had never sued one of her books. I had my 8th grader read this one. It is set in Roman Britain.

Other Subjects:

Aeneid for Boys and Girls by Alfred Church — Having just tacked the full Odyssey I didn’t want to read the original book but Church’s retelling is fun and exciting.

Child’s History of Art by V.M. Hillyer — We read the sections on Rome from all three books within a book: painting, sculpture and architecture. This is elementary level but one can still get quite a bit out of it.

Science in Ancient Rome  by Jacqueline Harris — Also elementary level.

Happy reading!

Nebby

Psalm Study: Psalm 67

Dear Reader,

[I apologize again this week for the weird fonts; WordPress seems to be holding a grudge against me.]

Since it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on the Psalms, a bit of an introduction is probably in order –

Background

Who I am and why I’m doing this — Mostly just your average Christian in the pew, but I did study biblical Hebrew in college and grad school [1]. I also belong to a psalm-singing church and homeschool my kids. I have more often than not followed the Charlotte Mason approach to education which calls for hymn study. This made no sense for us so we began to do “Psalm Study” instead.

The theory behind Psalm Study — My thesis is this: The structure of the Psalms contributes to their meaning and beauty. This sounds pretty basic but it actually rather controversial in academic circles. Whereas English poetry relies on rhyme and meter as its primary structural devices, Hebrew poetry is usually said to rely on parallelism. But there is no agreement as to whether parallelism as such actually exists and, if it does, how and why it operates [2].

Things I believe

  • I do not believe that my way of reading the Psalms is the only way.  God’s Word is a living Word and part of what that means is that we can come to it time and again and get different things from it each time. I am offering one way to approach the Psalms, but it is by no means the only way. 
  • I do believe that the Psalms are God’s inspired Word. The words they contain are deliberate and significant and their structure is as well [3]. The more we delve into the Word of God, the greater is our appreciation of its beauty and intricacy. I hope that as you come along with me in these Psalm Studies that you too will be in awe of just how much God has to tell us and of how sophisticated  — and yet how simple — is the language of the Psalms. 
  • I do not believe every person in the pew needs to learn Hebrew to appreciate the Psalms. It would be nice, of course, but it is not and should not be necessary. You can learn to appreciate the structure of the Psalms and to understand them better without learning Hebrew. My goal is to help you to do so. 
  • I believe that our worship will be more meaningful the better we understand and appreciate the Psalms. Even if you don’t regularly sing Psalms in worship (though you should; see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), you will be delving deeper into the Word of God and that is always good.

Psalm 67 and Analysis

All of which is a long introduction to a short Psalm. Here, without further ado, is my translation of Psalm 67 [4]:

 

To the leader, upon neginot, a psalm, a song [5]

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us.

2 May he shine his face upon us,  Selah.

3 To know in the earth your way,

4 In all nations your salvation.

5 May the peoples praise you, God;

6 May the people praise you, all of them.

7 May the nations rejoice and be glad

8 For you will judge peoples rightly.

9 And nations in the earth you will lead them, Selah.

10 May the peoples praise you, God;

11 May the peoples praise you, all of them.

12 Earth gives its harvest.

13 May God, our God, bless us.

14 May God bless us,

15 And may they fear him, all the ends of the earth [6]

This relatively short Psalm is a wonderful introduction to parallelism. Simply put, Hebrew poetry repeats concepts. It rarely uses exact repetition (though this Psalm has some) but repeats ideas. Before you read any further, I want you to ask yourself two questions:

  1. What one word or idea stands out to you from this Psalm?
  2. Can you find and mark pairs of adjacent lines that seem to express the same idea? (Seriously, print out this page and get out your pencil and actually mark them.)

I hope you saw pretty easily that lines 1 and 2 go together and then lines 3 and 4. “May God be gracious to us and bless us” expresses a very similar idea to “May God shine his face upon us.” Likewise, “to know in the earth your way” parallels “in all nations your salvation.” We can see one of the basic principles of parallelism here: not every element need be repeated. The verb from line 3 is omitted but assumed in line 4.

Continuing on, lines 5 and 6 go together as do lines 10 and 11. These two pairs are actually identical which is unusual in Hebrew poetry. It likes parallelism but exact repetition is not the norm. We have at this point identified a structural device, but we are never done until we ask why? Why does the psalmist use this device and what does it contribute to the meaning of the Psalm?

The psalmist draws our attention to lines 7 through 9 in not one but two ways: those lines break the structure which up until this point has consisted of pairs of very closely parallel lines, and they are outlined in some sense by the repeated lines on either side of them. We might say lines 5/6 and 10/11 function like bookends, or perhaps even like spotlights to shine attention on what is in between them. As I have structured it, these three lines come exactly in the middle of the Psalm with 3 pairs of parallel lines on either side of them. (Lines 12/13 and 14/15 also form pairs though their meaning is not so closely parallel.)

Let’s pause for a second and return to the first question I asked you – What words or ideas stood out to you in this Psalm? There are two big ones that occurred to me: blessing and praising. “God” and “peoples/nations” also occur frequently. God blesses and the peoples praise. Those lines in the middle, the triad that breaks the pattern, tell us how God blesses us and why He is to be praised. God judges rightly and guides nations. There are a lot of reasons for people to praise God but this is not a generic praise Psalm (if there is such a thing). Psalm 67 is a psalm in praise of God’s just rule of the nations.

Wrapping it up

Psalm 67 is a short psalm and perhaps, on the surface, not a very interesting one. It repeats the same words – bless, God, praise, nations – and doesn’t give us many exciting details about enemies taunting and festering wounds and the like. But I hope you have seen that a close examination of the Psalm adds to its meaning. When we focus in on how a Psalm is structured, we see the artistry of how the psalmist puts it together and we come to a greater appreciation of its beauty and a deeper understanding of its meaning. Even a little Psalm like this one has secrets to reveal when we take the time to sit with it and let it speak to us.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] I left grad school ABD – “all but dissertation” – to raise my kids. That was a long time ago.

[2] When I was in grad school, the two big thinkers on the Psalms were Robert Alter and James Kugel (for full disclosure: Kugel was my advisor in grad school). Wilfred G.E. Watson offers a more technical book on Hebrew poetry.

In Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1986), Watson names parallelism as the chief structural device (p. 114). He gives extensive examples and discusses the uses of parallelism in terms of composition and presentation. He does not tie parallelism to meaning. I do not know what his individual beliefs were, but as an academic writer, he does not discuss Hebrew poetry from the point of view of faith. This is one way in which I hope my own approach will be different from what has come before.

Kugel is often accused of rejecting the idea of biblical poetry altogether. This is perhaps an extreme take on his position, but he does ultimately argue that parallelism as such has been imposed by scholars on the biblical text. He prefers to talk of “seconding” [The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) p. 51]. This seconding he identifies not just in biblical poetry but in passages we usually label as prose as well, thus the accusation that he denies the existence of poetry.

Alter counters Kugel’s argument and makes the case for poetry [The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985)]. Like Watson, he covers a number of the forms parallelism can take. He also acknowledges that biblical poetry is part of a religious tradition (p. 205) and that it is through language that we communicate with God (p. 135). Still, with sentences like these, his book stops short of providing a clear understanding of the structure of biblical poetry and its importance for people of faith:

“There is a certain affinity, let me suggest, between the formal properties of a given prosodic system or poetic genre and the kinds of meaning most readily expressed through that system or genre.” (p. 62)

“In the case of biblical poetry, the two basic operations of specification and heightening within the parallelistic line lead to an incipiently narrative structure of minute concatenations, on the one hand, and to a climactic structure of thematic intensifications, on the other hand.” (p. 63; I am a Hebrew scholar, albeit a lapsed one, and I had to look up “concatenations.”)

[3] The Old Testament comes down to us through the centuries in a number of different manuscripts. Volumes could, and have been, written on which particular texts or readings are the “original” ones. Such a discussion is one I am happy to have but is beyond the scope of my present enterprise. I have a high degree of confidence that what we have today is what God wants us to have and that is ultimately enough for me. Unless I say otherwise, I always rely on the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) version of the Hebrew text.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, I use my own translations of the Hebrew text for Psalm Study. I do so because I want the translation that as nearly as possible approximates the Hebrew while still making sense in English. My two biggest goals in translating are to (1) preserve the structure of the Hebrew so you can see it and (2) to be consistent in my word choice. If the Hebrew always uses one word for “salvation” (as an example), I always translate that word the same way. If the Hebrew varies the words it uses, I aim to do likewise. Line numbers are not verse numbers but are given for the purposes of discussion. Every translation is to some degree and interpretation. I try to stay as close to the text as possible and to insert my own ideas as little as possible but you are allowed to disagree with my translations and with my division of lines. That’s part of the fun.

[5] A superscription. The neginot are probably some musical instrument. The Hebrew word is plural.

[6] Notes on the translation: Hebrew does not use different verbal forms for “may he” and “he will.” I made an executive decision to use “may” in this Psalm and tried to stick with it throughout the Psalm for consistency. “Selah” is probably some sort of musical term or direction; its meaning is unknown. The switch from third to second person (as from line 2 to line 3)  no doubt would bother your English teacher; it did not bother the Hebrew writers or audiences. They do that sort of thing a lot.

 

Book Review: Teaching and Christian Imagination

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education, I recently read Teaching and Christian Imagination by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). The book is a series of essays, grouped by image, on Christian education. The intended audience is the burnt-out Christian school teacher. The idea behind it is that by exploring various images related to education, that one will rediscover one’s purpose in teaching and be reinvigorated.

“This is not a ‘how-to’ manual or a collection of tips. This book offers lenses, not recipes, opening possibilities rather than laying out instructions. It is an opportunity to refresh your imagination, to step back and see differently. It invites you to explore how your faith and your imagination can dance together in ways that bring grace and truth into your daily service to your students and your school.” (p. 2)

Images are really the guiding principle here, and I agree with the authors that images are important. They help shape our thoughts. But — and this is where my problem with this book lies — because they are important and because they do shape our thoughts, we need to be discriminating in which images we chose and in how we apply them. It matters, for instance, whether we view children as blank slates, lumps of clay, or hot-house flowers.

Teaching groups its essays around three fairly standard sets of Christian images: journeys and pilgrimages; gardens and wildernesses; buildings and walls. But it shows little discrimination in what images it uses or how it uses them. There is no clear standard here for how we know what it true or what to accept. There are certainly many biblical references, but the writers also quote Rousseau (pp. 90-91) whose influence on modern education was disastrous and analyze paintings of the Christ child with saints and angels (pp. 101-02). Nor is there any sort of clear philosophy of education. The classical approach is described in one section (pp. 169ff), but there is little that provides a theological or philosophical framework for the book as a whole.

The authors have shied away from providing strong and definite ideas but in doing so they have not provided enough of a basis for their work. Teaching and Christian Imagination sees a need: Christian schools with burnt-out teachers. Its solution is to throw a handful of poorly vetted images at that need which may inspire in the short term, but I think they would have been better served by a back-to-basics questioning of the underlying framework, something which asks what are we doing and is it the right thing and how do we even know, what is our standard?

One of my biggest underlying principles in this blog is that ideas matter. Images convey ideas and so I agree with the book’s authors that images too matter. My problem with Teaching and Christian Imagination is actually that they don’t take their own images seriously enough; they don’t curate them well. A book which really looks at the images the Bible gives us regarding education and which draws from Scripture to apply those images would be most welcome. I am afraid a book which applies images indiscriminately as this one does may give some a temporary emotional boost but will do more long-term damage.

Nebby

The Purpose of Education, Part 2

Dear Reader,

We don’t need no education; 
We don’t need no thought control.”

(Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”)

We are narrowing in on the purpose of education. Last time we talked about the “when” and I made the case that education must be for the long term. Today I’d like to look at the “who” — or perhaps I should say the “for whom?” Specifically we are going to ask: Are we educating primarily for the individual or for the larger society?  Of course, the two are not wholly unrelated; societies are composed of individuals and to change one is to change the other. The question before us is not so much who benefits as where our primary focus lies.

In anthropological terms, education transmits — and  in the process creates– a common culture. As Christians, we limit ourselves if we stop there. The definition tells us one aspect of what education does but it does not tell us what education should do.

What I’d like to propose today is this: While acknowledging that education affects both the individual and the society, we as parents and educators need to keep our primary focus on the individual. This is not something I am going to be able to prove per se, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to convince you that this is the best approach.

Last time I made the case for long-term goals. Education, I argued, is not about equipping children to become part of God’s plan; it is about fulfilling that plan, however we may define it.

If this is the case, then we have to look at the divine plan in order to understand the goal of education. Our question today is: Is it for the individual or for the society? [I am using “society” loosely here. Depending on one’s view of education it might be variously defined. In a Christian context, “society” equals Church. For others, the society might be the state, the nation, the world.]

The answer is really both. God is building His church. In many ways the people of God are a unit. We are the bride — not brides — of Christ (Rev. 21:2; 22:17).  We are both a building and a body (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 12:12ff). The gospel is often seen to spread community by community as nations (Matt. 28:19) and households (Acts 16:15) are transformed. And yet our God works in such a way that He never overrides the individual. While Jesus and later Paul and the other apostles often preached to large crowds, they never scorned the individual. God speaks to each one (Acts 2:6). Nor is our religion one that calls us to transcend the individual personality. Van Til goes so far as to argue that the goal of education — and of life — is the development of the individual personality:

“In covenant education we seek not to extract the human begin from his natural milieu as a creature of God, but rather seek to restore the creature with his milieu to God . . . A Christian is a true human being once more.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), p. 143; cf. p. 152]

Personhood is vital to Christianity. There is a corporate goal, yes, but never at the expense of the individual.

In some sense the individual versus corporate tension does not even make sense from a biblical perspective because God orchestrates the small events of one person’s life and the large events of His greater plan in such a way that there is never a conflict or contradiction (Rom. 8:28).

Nonetheless, I am making the case that our goal needs to be primarily individual. The problem is that we are not God. It is much harder for us to balance competing concerns.  If we begin with a societal goal, we end up fitting the individual to that overarching end, cutting or stretching them as need be to suit the greater good. But if we start with the individual, that one person’s good becomes one more brick in the edifice that is the greater good without having to lose its individuality. From God’s perspective, and in His perfect plan, there is no conflict between the individual and the society. But we are not God, and if we set ourselves to shape the society we will tend to run over the individual in the process. If we set ourselves to educate the individual, the benefit to the larger society will naturally follow. As Van Til says:

“It is all summed up in the expression that man must live his life to the glory of God. In seeking the glory of God, man the individual and mankind as a whole will also be enriched.” (Van Til, p. 45)

I am intentionally stopping short of saying what our goal is. Thus far I have argued that:

  • We need a long-term goal that places education within God’s greater plan. Education is not about equipping youth to be able to become part of that plan; they are already bang-splat in the middle of it, as we all are. 
  • On one level, there is no inherent contradiction between the needs of the individual and that of the society because God is able to orchestrate the two perfectly.
  • But we are not perfect, nor do we see the whole picture. Because the tendency if we have societal goals is to override the individual or to try to manipulate him to fit the ends, our goal in education should be primarily focused on the individual.

Nebby

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