Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.








Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

An article on CNN’s website led my to 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point Toward Faith by Rick Stedman. Though I often regret clicking on any article that claims to be about religion or faith, I was pleasantly surprised by Stedman’s contribution, enough so that I immediately purchased his book. At the time I was reading The Benedict Option (see my review here) and I thought that Stedman’s work might be a nice counterpoint to it.

The Benedict Option is written for disillusioned Christians who find themselves in a  world that is foreign to them. As such, it presents a pretty negative, pessimistic view of modern American society. From the little I had read, I thought that Stedman might take another view and I was eager to see what he had to say.

I had been thinking for a few months that, though so many of my acquaintances are not Christians and many are even what might be called pagan (proudly so at times), though they do not share many of my political positions or subscribe to biblical standards or morality, that they are not so very far from truth as one might think. So much of what they have to say still betrays some core values. Above all, they care — they care about people, they care about equality and creation (though they may not think it is created), they care about justice. My hope was that Stedman would share this outlook, would help me fill it out, and would give me ways to begin to talk to such people and to draw them out through these sorts of common values.

To the extent that I went into this book with these expectations, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless I did find a book well worth reading and sharing.

Stedman is up front with what he believes and with what he is trying to do. “God,” he says, “has double coded . . . evidence of his own reality and presence within our world, albeit in very subtle forms” (p. 13). “God intended that normal people should actually discern his existence” (p. 12). However, “our spiritual impulses, when repressed, sublimate and reappear in other arenas” (p. 19). This thesis is actually almost identical to that of another book I quite enjoyed and would highly recommend — Meaning at the Movies (my review here). And Stedman also begins with movies, superhero movies and horror in particular, but he also covers many other topics, 31 of them to be exact.

Before looking at a few specifics, I should note, as Stedman makes clear, that this is not a book that claims to make an air-tight case for the existence of God. As the title and subtitle say, these are reasons that point to a God; they are clues in creation and in our own psyches (see p. 12) but they are not going to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. If it were so easy to construct a logical argument to prove God’s existence, it would have been done long before this. I actually really respect that Stedman was upfront with what he hopes to accomplish and what the limitations of his arguments are.

31 Surprising Reasons is divided into sections, each one containing from 3 to 7 short chapters. The first, for instance, is on aesthetics — beauty and art and movies. Part two covers issues of justice and morality; three divine elements in our universe; four humanity itself; and five our desire for something beyond this life. Taken as a whole, each of these sections is good. Stedman mentions that because there are 31 short chapters that this book is perfect for a month-long study. I wondered if perhaps he stretched some of his sections to get to that 31 and it might not have been a bit better if some chapters were eliminated or combined. Overall, the ideas are good, however, and the book is well worth reading (two of my favorite bits are the chapters on language and the scientific method).

Having said which, these are not new ideas. I am sure, as Stedman quotes many other sources, that he would admit this. The bit on movies, as I said, was dealt with more thoroughly in Meaning at the Movies. C.S. Lewis has made the arguments about justice and morality in Mere Christianity, and my own favorite Frank Boreham has a wonderful essay on how our desire to explore points us to something beyond this world. Still, I like how Stedman has put all this together. It is not high-falutin’ theology but it is an enjoyable and quite readable book (I am currently reading another which says many of the same things but in much harder words!). This is another one I plan to have my high schoolers read.

Final word: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God is a good, solid book that is well worth reading. The short chapters mean you can spend just a few minutes a day on it and the readability means it is good for those who are younger or newer to Christian thought.


CM’s “Gospel” Principles

Dear Reader,

I have been slowly working my way through Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education in an effort to answer the question: Are Charlotte’s ideas founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures? To catch up and get some background, check out these posts:

On the reasoning behind this series: What does it mean to be pure CM?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (plus a digression: Man in the Image of God, or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Is it biblical?: CM’s 2nd principle, part 1, part 2, and part 3

CM’s first principle revisited

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Whew! Up to speed yet? Until now, we have been fairly theoretical, discussing the ideas behind Charlotte’s approach to education. Having laid a groundwork by discussing who the child is, his nature, and his relationship to his Creator, I’d like to move on to more practical considerations.

My original plan had been to work my way through Charlotte’s 20 Principles. I am finding, however, that I know would like to take a slightly different tack. I will be skipping over Charlotte’s third principle entirely — not because it is not important but actually because it seems one of the least controversial. This is the one, you may recall, which discusses authority and obedience. These concepts are so central to the Bible, to parenthood, and to our relationship with God, that I hope we will have no dispute in them (though if you have specific questions, please speak up).

As we move on to numbers 4 and 5, we begin to get into the practical details which is where I’d like to spend my time now. In her fourth principle Charlotte lays out what we may not do in education and in the fifth she gives us the tools which are at our disposal. Here she uses that phrase so familiar to CM educators: “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As her fifth principle follows the fourth, so these positive ideas arise from negative commands. In other words, when we cross out what we cannot do, we are left with what we can do.

Where does Charlotte get these ideas? The wording is not quite the same but the concept — first eliminating the negative and then seeing what, positively, is left to us, is very similar to what Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education.” Here she finds a series of prohibitions telling us what we may not do in educating and training our children; from the negatives she then derives the corresponding positives. Here is how Charlotte explains it:

“So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from––that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, pp. 12-13)

Charlotte’s Gospel Code

My modus operandi has been to let Charlotte speak for herself, to look at the biblical evidence, and then to try to evaluate her idea in light of the Scriptures with an eye to answering the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures? Let us begin then by looking at what Charlotte calls “the code of education in the gospels.”

“It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)

This code, Charlotte tells us, is not just derived from the gospels but is “expressly laid down by Christ.” I take this to mean that, in her view, Christ here deliberately gives us commandments regarding how we may treat children. The overarching theme is “do not sort of injury, ” a theme which is filled out by the three negative commands: “offend not, despise not, hinder not.” Let us take each of these three in turn, then, and examine both its biblical basis and how Charlotte defines it.

Offend Not

To Offend Not concerns “sins of commission” (p. 13). Here the active sins we may commit against children are in view. “An offence,” Charlotte tells us, ” . . . is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall” (p. 13). Charlotte begins in this section by telling us that children are “born law-abiding “and with “a sense . . . of right and wrong” (p. 14), that is, a conscience. [I have dealt extensively with Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature in my posts on her second principle; I will not revisit the topic here.] The parent begins to “offend” the child  when she laughs at his transgressions, thinking them cute, and when she fails to follow through on a “no” she has given. By these she teaches him that he may be bad.

But it is not only in the moral realm that we may offend. As we have seen, Charlotte’s philosophy encompasses all areas of life. On this point too we may speak of the physical and intellectual realms and of the affections as well. In the physical realm, we offend when we give “unwholesome food” or otherwise disregard “the simple laws of health” (p. 16). In the intellectual realm, we offend when we allow a child to dawdle over their lessons. We offend their affections when we play favorites among the children.

In each of these ways then, and in many others, we offend in that we cause sin to spring up in the heart of a child. It may be the sin of being a bad steward of one’s body or mind, of not working diligently, of jealousy of a sibling. Whatever the sin, the parent has had some role in allowing it to begin and to come to fruition.

Charlotte does not cite chapter and verse for her “gospel code.” I take this a stylistic point at best. She clearly is immersed in the Scriptures and uses their language. So, while she does not directly refer us to the Gospel of Matthew, I think we can see in her language that she bases this first prohibition on Matthew 18:6:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Emphasis added; All biblical quotes are taken from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Despise Not

Charlotte closely links the first two prohibitions. As offend not warns against sins of commission, despise not cautions us against sins of omission. To despise, Charlotte tells us, is to have to low an opinion of. Parents despise their children when they do not give them the best of themselves; when they do not guard them against bad influences (Charlotte speaks particularly of poor nursemaids); when they do not take their sins seriously enough, that is, when they allow their sins to pass as mere childish behavior and do not address it (pp. 18-19; cf. School Education, p. 49). This is very similar to the offense Charlotte spoke of; the difference seems to be that in one the parent says “no” but undercuts their own command and in the other, the parent fails to even address the sin. To despise, then, is to neglect, not in a criminal way, but to fail to truly attend to the child’s spiritual needs for good influences and correction.

Again we may find the reference Charlotte alludes to in Matthew 18:

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10; Emphasis added)

Hinder Not

Children, Charlotte tells us, naturally come to their Savior “when they are not hindered by their elders” (p. 20). Hindering, as she here defines it, is a particularly grievous subset of despising. When we despise the children, we impede their moral training; when we hinder, we, perhaps unknowingly, forbid the children to come to the Lord.

How do we hinder children? We speak to them of God’s judgment and not His love. We show them only “listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (p. 20; cf. School Education, p. 48). In other words, we do not show them God or give them access to the real things of God. The highest function of parents, Charlotte tells us elsewhere is to be “revealers of God to their children” (School Education, p. 50).

In  introducing this issue, Charlotte uses the words “suffer” and “forbid.” These show us that the passage she has in mind is Matthew 19:13-14:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Emphasis added)

These, then, are the three points that Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education” — we must not cause children to sin, we must not overlook their sin or allow them to fall into sin through our neglect, and we must not prevent them from coming to God. In this last especially we begin to see the positive injunctions that Charlotte promised us as well — we must show them God.

The Biblical Evidence: Matthew 18-19

Charlotte has made my task easy this time. Though she does not give us references, her language clearly shows us that she is basing her ideas upon Matthew 18-19. I have already spent some time on these chapters in my post on The Greatness of the Child as a Person. In that post, looking once again at Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature, I did not agree with her interpretation of these chapters. Today, however, though we cannot entirely distance ourselves from the question of the child’s inherent nature, our focus is slightly different. The question is not who the child is but what we should, or should not, do to him.

Charlotte has isolated three phrases from the biblical text and given us an interpretation of each. The question before us then is whether in each of these she rightly represents the biblical text. Now interpretation is, well, a matter of interpretation. But I think we can at least ask if the interpretations Charlotte gives us are reasonable, if they seem to make sense in the context of the passage and to be in line with the rest of the Word of God.

In Matthew 18:6 Christ tells us that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to “offend one of these little ones.” In the preceding verses, a child has been placed before Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus speaks of cutting off one’s hand if it “offends” one. It seems quite clear, and indeed it is the common interpretation, that to “offend” is to “to cause to sin.”

To despise, as we said above, comes from verse 10 of Matthew 18. It is not clear from the biblical context what this means which is perhaps why Charlotte resorts to her dictionary. It is a unclear how much we should make of the immediate context. These chapters have the feel of a series of utterances that may not have originally been spoken together but which have been grouped together because of some common words and themes. Nonetheless there seems to be a link with what follows as verse 11 begins with a “For . . .” — “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” What follows is a brief parable about a man who has 100 sheep and loses one yet leaves the 99 to go look for the lost one. And then in verse 14, we read:

“Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

The connecting words (“for” and “even so”) seem to make these verses a unit as does the return to the idea of “little ones” in verse 14. Does this help us understand what it means to “despise”? The shepherd, it would seem, “despised not” his sheep when he noted its absence and went in search of it.  To despise may then be the opposite of to notice and to care for. The shepherd does not want his sheep to be lost; the Father does not want a little one to perish. If the shepherd had despised his sheep, he would have allowed it to stay lost. If we despise “one of these little ones,” does that mean we allow them to perish — spiritually perhaps, if not physically? I think these are reasonable conclusions from the immediate context; I don’t feel rock-solid in them. Though Charlotte does not draw out these connections, her idea of “despise” seems very similar and I would have to  say it seems in line with the little context we have.

The following chapter, Matthew 19, is seen by most scholars to begin a new section. Still the subject of “little ones” appear again here. In the midst of verses about divorce, eunuchs and eternal life, we find this short section of three verses:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” (Matt. 19:13-15)

On the most literal level, Jesus here tells his disciples to allow children to physically approach him. It is common, and not to great a stretch I think, to extend this to a more spiritual application — children are able and encouraged to approach their Savior. We are not to forbid them from doing so. Charlotte adds that we are not to hinder and again I think this is a reasonable addition.


I have only thus far touched on the negative commands which Charlotte calls the “gospel code” — offend not, hinder not, despise not. Though I am not convinced that these are laid out for us as the rule of education, they clearly have a firm biblical basis and in each case Charlotte’s interpretation seems to fit well with the biblical context.

Next time I would like to look at the positive principles which she derives from these negative commands.

Until then


Two More CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

See my most updated post on CM curricula here.

In previous posts I have looked at some of the major Charlotte Mason curricula out there. Well, it turns out there is always something new. This time, I am looking at A Gentle Feast and Wildwood. The latter is the first secular CM curriculum I have seen. It is also, thus far, in the beginning stages it appears so there was not a lot I could say about a number of subjects. I think you can get a fairly good idea of it and, if your theology/life philosophy does not fit with the standard CM outlook it is probably a good place to start. In general, my object in these posts is to let the curricula speak for themselves and not to give you my own opinions of them or to sat which is most “CM.”

The previous posts are here:

Four CM Curricula Compared

Three More CM Curricula Compared

And here is today’s contribution:

CM curricula third 8-5-17

As always, please let me know of any changes you see. I am by no means an expert in all of these.


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.




Living Books on 9-11 and the War on Terror

Dear Reader,

In my post on living books on the 2000s, I promised you a separate post on 9-11 and the War on Terror. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on 9-11 and the War on Terror

Not surprisingly, there are a ton of books on 9-11 and a good number on the War on Terror. My oldest was a baby during the 9-11 attacks. They have no first-hand memories of the attacks but they do know a lot just from being part of our society. My kids are middle and high school and I wanted them to really feel the impact of those events as they unfolded so we found some news footage from the day on YouTube and watched it. I think they appreciated this and that it gave them some sense of what it was like to live through the events. It was interesting for me because, having watched things unfold on TV as they happened, I remembered the big events — second plane crashing, building falling, hearing that something had happened at the Pentagon — but forgot how much time there was in between and how much the poor commentators had to fill in and guess what was happening with no real information. It was interesting to see how slowly they came to the realization that someone had done this on purpose and to use the word terrorism (even though the World Trade Center had been a target previously) while today our minds immediately jump to terrorism no matter what has happened.

We have gone beyond our spine book for the year but I did read this book aloud to all my kids:

911 6

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman is a long picture book (but, yes, I read it even to my high schoolers) but it tells the story of 9-11 very well while giving a slightly different take on events. I had no idea about the boat evacuations and how many ordinary people had pitched in to help. As with most books on this topic, I was in tears by the end.

As I said there are a lot of books on this topic and I am sure many are good. But I also didn’t want to belabor the point by just reading about what is essentially an event that covered only a few hours over and over again. But if you are looking for some others, here are some I skimmed through (mainly based on what was available in my library system):

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel tells the story of the World Trade Center (I believe).

14 Cows for America tells of the support that came from far distant lands, including one African village.

Fireboat is another one about the role of boats in the aftermath.

America is under Attack and Twin Towers are more general books relating the events.

Ground Zero Dogs, as its title suggests, is about the canine rescue workers. It does not seem like a living book to me but might appeal to an animal-loving kid.

A few more:

I am not going to go through all of these. The Cornerstones of Freedom series is one I usually like — but only the older books that begin The Story of  . . . The Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 is a newer one (it pretty much has to be) and did not look as good.

A Nation Challenged is good if you want pictures.

To help understand the events, try Critical Perspectives on 9/11 and Understanding September 11th.

As we begin to understand the events, we also move into a discussion of radical Islam and terrorism in general, and to the War on Terror.

There are a lot of middle grade and up books on terrorism. Many seem poorly written and don’t provide a lot of true historical information. I had my 7th grader read Eve Bunting’s The Man with the Red Bag. Bunting is an author we know. The book wasn’t awful though I am not sure it was great either. He seemed to mildly enjoy it. I think more than anything it showed the paranoia in the wake of 9/11. From his narrations, it seemed weak plot-wise (or maybe he narrated poorly).

My 6th grader read The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. This is the first in a series of books about a girl in Afghanistan. This is no Dickens but Ellis seems like one of the bets choices out there for a glimpse of life in Afghanistan and I believe she has books set in other Middle Eastern countries as well. My daughter chose to read the rest of the series on her own.

Life of an American Soldier in Afghanistan by Diane Yancey is what it sounds like and gives another perspective on the War on Terror. I believe The Unforgiving Mind is also the soldiers but looks longer, deeper, and darker.

Happy Reading!


New Light on Habits

Dear Reader,

One test of a living book is if you can get new things from it each time you read it. Charlotte Mason’s own books are clearly living because I am re-reading volume one and just understood something in a whole new way. This is not new information (it was first written in the 1800s!) and may not be a new idea to some of you, but for me it was a whole new way of thinking about habit-training.

When I was coming more and more to a Charlotte Mason way of thinking about education, I was slow to warm up to the idea of habit-training. There was something about it that seemed false. Of course, we discipline and train our children but the idea that habits could be so important seemed very externally focused. I have come to appreciate that while good habits may not always correspond with a right heart, that they can make life very much easier, both for parent and child.

But in my head I think I was still overly influenced by the nuances I associate with that word: “habit.” Perhaps it is a more modern understanding of the word that I was reading back into Charlotte’s writings or maybe it is just me. Habits, whether smoking or saying please and thank you, are something I thought of only as rote actions; they had nothing to do with the heart.

As I reread Home Education, I find that while habits, in Charlotte’s conception, are rote in the sense that once they are established we do not need to think about them, that they have everything to do with the heart.

In part 3 of her first book, “Habit is Ten Natures,” Charlotte begins by listing those things which contribute to the nature of an individual person. We all, she says, have a common human nature which includes both a conscience, however fallen, but also a sin nature. [If you read here regularly, you may know that my view of fallen human nature is not quite the same as Charlotte’s (see, for example, this post and this one); I will not rehash the differences here; I don’t think they matter for the purposes of this post.]

We also each have familial influences. I am not sure Charlotte had our understanding of genetics or was familiar with the nature/nurture debate. It does not really matter in her conception whether a particular predilection is genetic or cultural. In this category we might include a predisposition to addiction or a bad temper that seems inherited from parents and grandparents or learned behaviors such as bad eating habits. Lastly, each individual has his or her own personal weaknesses. These three sources — common human nature, familial influences, and personal traits — all combine to create a unique individual nature, but not perhaps a very good one.

I call this the individual nature because it is unique to the individual but also because it is natural in the sense that it is what we have before outside influences act upon it. It is what we begin with. But, I hope, we are not happy to remain here. This is a fallen nature and, as Charlotte says, left on its own it will only get worse (Home Education, p. 76). Our goal then is to improve upon the nature we are born with.

This is where habit comes in. Charlotte calls it a lever. It is a small tool that allows us to do big work. This is really where my new (to me) insight comes in — Habit is not just about a polite veneer. It is more than a smooth pathway for our lives. Habit, for Charlotte, is the means by which we begin to change our natures. “Habit,” she says, “forces nature into new channels” (p. 78). Habit transforms our individual natures. I had heard before that Charlotte speaks of habit as “second nature” (p. 80). But I had not gotten the major spiritual implications of what she is saying here. Habit is a tool by which we begin to change our inborn, sinful natures into something better, something higher. It is not a mere external nicety. Habit works on the most basic human problem.

I want to be careful that we are understanding this is a biblical context. To use Christian terms, habit is a tool for our sanctification. But this remaking of our sinful human natures cannot occur without the work of the Holy Spirit. [Though she does not make it clear in this section, I think Charlotte would agree with this statement. She sees all of education as the work of God the Holy Spirit; certainly this area is no exception.] With His aid, our efforts, though they may seem aimed at externals, have real internal effect. Without His help, our efforts, as in all areas of life, would be in vain.

I came to a Charlotte Mason way of educating late and even when I appreciated her philosophy in some ways, I was slow to implement it in others. Habit-training was not something we consciously implemented in the early years. I have at time regretted this as I wish now that my kids were more organized and better at keeping things clean and put away. These habits are easier to train in the young years than they are in teens (be warned!). But as I am realizing that habit training goes so much further beyond putting away ones’ toys. It is a spiritual tool and as such is useful not just in practical day-to-day house-keeping ways but in shaping our very natures. It is not something that stops at the teens years or even in adulthood. It becomes at some point not the parent’s responsibility but the child’s and can still be used by each of us as we live our lives as adults. Charlotte says that “The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature” (p. 76). This control that we hopefully have as adults, what Charlotte would elsewhere call the Way of the Will, is really just an extension of habit-training. Habit-training builds the Will by teaching us to do what we ought and not what we would and it is by the Way of the Will that we choose not what our own human natures desire but what God would have us do.

That is my big insight for the week. I realize that I am leaving one big question unanswered — it is the practical one. How do we habit train for more spiritual habits? What do you do with teens when the goals are not about putting away toys and shutting doors but are less tangible? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.


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