Posts Tagged ‘book review’

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.



Books Read: May 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in May:

Books Read May 2020

Main Travelled-Roads by Hamlin Garland — Another of the books I’ve been reading that could be called American provincialism, i.e. they give a picture of life in the US in one particular region and time. This one is a collection of shorter stories, almost all set in Wisconsin and the midwest in pioneer times (one story is clearly Civil War era; the others are more vague on decade). Settlers of Scandinavian descent are frequent characters. I almost dropped the book after the first two, they were so depressing. But others are more cheerful. Overall I would say it was an okay book but as with the others of this genre I have read there is a lot of “American values are to be nice and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and not a lot of real character presented.

Johann Sturm on Education (ed. Spitz and Tinsley) — Part of my continuing series on reformed Christian education. Sturm is an older writer, like contemporary of Luther and Calvin old. His approach to education is classical. In all honesty I did not read the whole book but it is a collection of letters and the like and a few key ones serve to give a pretty good overview of his approach. He was quite influential, on both Portestant and Catholic education, though I found a lot of what he had to say dated. Read my full review here

Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education — I had seen Whitehead quoted by a number of classical educators and decided if he was so influential I needed to read him. His book gave me a lot to ponder but in truth he is not Christian not classical and his philosophy is very modern and a little weird. I am not really sure why he gets quoted so often (it is just one line that they particularly like). Read all my thoughts on Whitehead here. An interesting read but not essential.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” — I heard someone on a podcast say that Christians don’t have horror, that it doesn’t work in a Christian worldview in which God is in charge. I am not sure that is true but it inspired me to read a little more Lovecraft. These are two of his longer (though still fairly short) and more famous stories. There are distinct similarities between them. The worlds and beings Lovecraft created inspired a kind of religion but as I read them (and from what I read about him) Lovecraft himself has being facetious and critical of those who look for deep meaning in old tales and mythical creatures. They are interesting stories though. Maybe not action packed enough for kids but I enjoyed them.  And if you have thoughts on Christian horror I’d love to hear them. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot — I listened to this one as an audio book and it took months. Not a bad story, a little slow at points. It turns out to be quite a bit about marriage which I didn’t get till the end. I am not sure I could have made it through in book form but I make myself a bit of a captive audience with the audio books. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan — True confessions time. I had never read this all the way through. So I force myself too (well, part 1 at least which is about Christian). I had never made it through because I could never quite get into it. And (sit down for this one) I am still not a huge fan. I think it is the allegory that just doesn’t appeal to me. I find something like Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina just has a lot more moral complexity. I find Pilgrim’s Progress a bit like one long sermon example. Sermon examples have their place but they don’t make good books.

What have you been reading?


Book Review: The Liturgy of Creation

Dear Reader,

Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) presents an interesting new approach to Genesis 1. LeFebvre is a member of my own denomination, a pastor, and a professor at the denominational seminary. He is clearly an intelligent scholar who has done a lot of study and put a lot of thought into the argument he makes. Having read the book and taken some time to ponder it, I am still not entirely sure where I fall on its argument.

My own background is in biblical Hebrew [1] and I have given some thought to the creation story in the past. Going into this book I would have said I am somewhat agnostic on creation issues, tending toward an Old Earth creationism but certainly not a literal 6-day creationism. [2] I also would say (and have said) that Genesis 1 is a unique narrative. It stands not just at the beginning of our Bible but as an introduction to the Pentateuch, the Old Testamen,t and the Scriptures as a whole. Despite attempts to define it, it is not really like any other section of Scripture in terms of its style and genre. Therefore it is hard to know how to take it.  I have argued, for instance, that though literal creationists want to compare the use of days with numbers attached to other such uses in the Pentateuch, that these can not really be compared on an equal footing since they are not the same kinds of texts.

LeFebvre has no doubt gotten and will get a lot of flack for his book from literal 6-day creationists. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to saying, again and again, that Genesis 1 cannot be used to say anything about the scientific aspects of when and how the earth was created. This is not my problem with the book. I went into the book already half-way on LeFebvre’s side in that I did not take the six days literally and I do take Genesis 1 as a different kind of genre, though I had no real answer to the question of what that genre is.

LeFebvre provides an answer to the question. The thesis of his book is that Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative (p. 6). As far as I know this is a genre he has uniquely identified and defined. The arguments he makes are built something like a brick wall in that they all hold together and work toward a common goal but it would be possible to disagree with some points here and there without knocking down the whole edifice. To mix my metaphors, one might say many of his arguments are circumstantial evidence. No one alone proves his point but when taken altogether he does make a compelling case.

I can’t possibly address everything LeFebvre brings into the discussion. I am going to leave aside all the scientific/creationist issues because (a) I am sure others will address those at length and (b) they are not issues for me personally. What I would like to focus on are just a few of the bigger issues and implications of Lefebvre’s argument.

Simply put, LeFeFebvre’s argument is that there is a genre within the Old Testament which he calls calendar narrative. He begins by looking at other passages from the Pentateuch and showing how the dates in them make no sense if taken literally (or at least pose serious issues). He shows how these dates line up with the festival holidays of Israel and argues that they were never meant to be taken literally but to tie Israel’s history to its calendar observances. These dates, he says, were for “liturgical remembrance,” not “journalistic detail” (p. 60). They were meant for the instruction of later generations (p. 66). Whereas the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures might tie their festivals to their myths, Israel’s festivals were rooted in their history (p. 14). Thus the story of the Passover, for one, is not intended to provide a precise history but to give instruction and meaning to the worshipper who will come later (p. 77).

Having learned “a reading strategy” (p. 66) from these other passages, LeFebvre turns to Genesis 1 and argues that the seven-day week it describes was also never meant to be taken literally. Like those other dates, the narrative of Genesis 1, according to Lefebvre, provides a justification for Israel’s festivals. In this case it is the weekly work cycle culminating in the Sabbath which is the focus (p. 113).  Note that it is not the Sabbath alone which Genesis 1 points to but the whole week. It is an example to us as much of what we should be doing the first six days of the week as what we should be doing on the final day. The description of God’s work week in Genesis 1 establishes the pattern for the human week. As LeFebvre describes the events of that first week, there are the normal patterns of plants growing and the normal taxonomy of animals with which the Israelite farmer would have been familiar (p. 173). There is nothing miraculous here; the original audience would have recognized what happens in Genesis 1 as mirroring their normal work. God, in this scenario, is the pattern for humans (p. 137). He is the Model Farmer (p. 165). The culmination of the week, the seventh day, is a time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It is a day of feasting.

On one level, there is a lot of appeal to LeFebvre’s theory. As I said, it tends to be in line with where my thoughts were going anyway — that Genesis has a unique genre and that we need to understand it as such. I think we also need to admit that there are some parts of the Bible that are just hard to take as literal history. Some dates don’t seem to line up or to make sense. There are various ways to deal with these seeming contradictions and some are more convincing than others. LeFebvre’s theory does an end-run around such arguments by saying that these dates were never meant to be taken literally.  He rather elegantly does away with the seeming contradictions without undermining the text or robbing them of it meaning.

LeFebvre spends some time explaining how the Bible deals with the scientific theories and beliefs of its day. Basically his argument is that the Bible never contradicts what its original readers would have believed. It never stretches them scientifically even if what they believed was wrong (a geocentric universe for example). In the context of his overall argument, this is perfectly acceptable. Since the Bible was not meant as science, it has no need to correct wrong science or to teach right science. I do actually like how he explains all this. It was not something I had thought about in this way but it makes sense.

I am less persuaded by some of his other arguments. (Recall that these arguments are like bricks in a wall; if we remove too many the whole will fall but to reject one or two is not necessarily to overthrow the whole.) He largely discounts miraculous explanations for the seeming contradictions. Not that he is a denier of miracles altogether, but he argues that if “the supernatural help of the Lord” were needed to accomplish large tasks such as the making of the utensils for the tabernacle in a relatively short amount of time that the text would have made this explicit (p. 87). This seems like a big assumption to me. One could argue on the other side that because there are so many instances where things were accomplished in humanly impossible (or at least improbable) amounts of time that this is how the text operates — these things happen and it does not comment on them. As with so many aspects of the biblical story, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

The thesis of LeFebvre’s book is that Genesis 1 is something he calls a calendar narrative. He bases this identification on the analogy with the other Pentateuchal texts which give dates. While he makes a compelling argument that the other passages use dates in a liturgical way, I don’t think he has established that there is a genre called calendar narrative or that Genesis 1 necessarily uses dates in the same way. As LeFebvre points out, the dates in Genesis 1 are different. They are days of the week with no reference to months (p. 115). He would say that this is because Genesis 1 speaks of the repeated weekly cycle rather than the yearly festivals, but, nonetheless, it is a difference. Genesis 1 is also one compact, discrete, and highly organized narrative. Compare this to the Flood story or the descriptions of Passover. My belief going into this was that Genesis 1 stands apart from the other Old Testament narratives we have because of its form and organization. LeFebvre has made a connection via the use of dates but he has not shown me that there is a genre here or what its defining characteristics would be, other than the use of specific dates which hardly seems enough to define a genre.

There is a difference as well in how LeFebvre himself deals with the details of these narratives. When speaking of the other narratives, he seems to take their details literally, apart from the issue of timing. Thus he can discuss how long it would have taken to make the utensils for the Tabernacle because he assumes that these utensils were made just as the text says and that the other events also happened as well in roughly the order they are presented. Yet when he comes to Genesis 1, there seems to be very little that he takes literally. To dismiss the idea of a literal week is one thing, but LeFebvre also says that the events of Creation need not have happened in the order they are presented (p. 138) and that even the mechanism of Creation is not meant literally (p. 146).

LeFebvre’s overall argument makes a very strong case for the Sabbath which I am not at all opposed to but it does so at the expense of other meaning. Coming as Genesis 1 does at the beginning of the whole Bible and being as it is a highly ordered narrative (a fairly unique thing within the Scriptures) one expects it to give an introduction to everything that follows, to set the tone if you will. [3] For Lefebvre, that introduction boils down to the Sabbath and the Sabbath alone:

“When the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Pentateuch, the sabbath-week calendar was placed at the front — literally in its first chapter (Gen 1:1-2:3). The cadence taught in that passage is the foundation from which our vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded in the rest of Scripture.” (p. 218)

In other words: “The Sabbath promise is literally the framing paradigm for all Scripture” (p. 219). This is quite a bold statement yet it comes at the end of the book with little discussion of how this would play out for our interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Let me say this again: LeFebvre is proposing a new paradigm for understanding all of Scripture.  Now the Sabbath is a wonderful thing and I think he could go a long way by talking about the ideal Sabbath rest which was set before us in Genesis 1, lost, found again in Jesus, and awaits us in eternity. But is this the paradigm by which we should understand all of Scripture? There are surely competing options. Covenant comes to mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture points to Him. If we are to say that Sabbath is the paradigm then at the very least that needs to be understood under the heading of Jesus as our Sabbath rest in which case it is not really the Sabbath which is key but Christ.

LeFebvre makes grand claims for Genesis 1 and yet in many ways he seems to rob it of meaning. His view of Genesis 1 is very focused and narrow. He concentrates on the weekly cycle of work and rest but in his understanding there is little else that Genesis 1 has to tell us. Personally, I think God tends to be a little more multifunctional than that. If we compare Genesis 1 to the Flood story, another of his calendar narratives, we find that while we might follow LeFebvre in not taking the dates literally there is still a lot the text has to tell us about not just big concepts like sin and judgment (not to mention baptism) but even about details like how many animals came in. If there is such a thing as calendar narrative, we still need to ask and answer questions about how we are to understand this genre. It is not enough to say “calendar narrative” as a way to explain the dates in a story and then to ignore the rest of what that narrative has to tell us. Considering the genre of any piece is useful in that it helps us know how to read that piece. LeFebvre has given a theory about how to understand the dates of certain texts, but he hasn’t spoken to how this helps our understanding of the rest of the details of these narratives.

As LeFebvre explains it, there is little left in Genesis 1 that would have been new information for its original audience. He makes a point of the fact that its agricultural details would have been very familiar to the average ancient Israelite. The actions and details of Genesis 1 would have been completely representative of the weekly cycle of work and rest of the average person. So much so that LeFebvre calls God “the Model Farmer.” I am willing to give LeFebvre the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean it this way but it is hard not to feel at times that, rather than man following the example of God here, God is being made in the image of man.

Often throughout the book I found myself wondering if what we have here is a chicken-and-egg problem. That is, which came first? If the Passover story (as an example) is being told in a way that instructs about the later celebration of that festival at the expense of the actual details about how the original Passover happened, which is the original story? Are there events which happened upon which the festival is based? Or is the story about Moses and the Israelites told to justify the festival? Again, this may not be how LeFebvre himself sees it (and I suspect it is not) but this is quite how modern, non-religious scholars take such texts — every story is created to explain a situation the audience already is quite familiar with. This is the definition of myth (with no implied judgment on its truthiness). Thus in Greek mythology the story of Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons and the Tower of Babel story explains why people speak different languages. LeFebvre’s understanding of Genesis 1 seems to fall into this same pattern — it explains something the audience already knew (agricultural cycles) and why they have certain practices (weekly work/rest pattern) but it would not have been informative for the original audience. In such an understanding, it is a story to explain why we do things the way we do not to tell us how to do something. The question for Genesis 1, then, is: Is the creation story written this way to justify the weekly practice or do the people have the weekly practice because this is how creation happened?

In his understanding of how dates are used in the Pentateuch, I do think LeFebvre has hit on something that deserves more attention. He has shown quite clearly how the various specific dates given lined up with Israel’s various festivals and feasts and that is quite compelling. He has not convinced me that there is a genre here that can be used to understand Genesis 1 in particular.  What I would like to see is a fuller description of the defining characteristics of this genre and how we are to interpret it, especially how we are to understand the details of such a story given its genre. I tend to agree with LeFebvre that there is not much we can get about chronology from Genesis 1 but that does not mean that there is not more that the story is telling us beyond the weekly cycle of work and rest.

LeFebvre is quite right when he says that his interpretation makes the Sabbath the paradigm for all of Scripture. But that is a huge claim. It is a fairly daunting thing in the year 2000-something to say “I have a new paradigm for understanding Scripture.” If he means it, I think he also needs to speak to how that paradigm shapes our understanding of the rest of the Bible.

If I can close by returning to the analogy I started with, I think LeFebvre has some very interesting bricks here. I am not convinced he has built a wall. When he speaks of the Sabbath paradigm, I feel he is saying “look, I can see a totally new country from my wall,” but he doesn’t tell me enough about what that country looks like.


[1] I have a bachelors and masters in Hebrew from one secular university and was ABD “all but dissertation” in a Ph.D. Program at another prestigious secular university.

[2] You can find earlier posts I did on the whole creation/evolution thing here.

[3] Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms in much the same way.

[4] “Secular” here describes the institutions which had no religious affiliation (except perhaps a very distant historical one). The students and staff held to a range of beliefs. Some, students especially, professed various forms of Christianity. Some, professors especially, were fairly religious Jews.

Books Read: April 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in April:

Books Read April 2020

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth by Frank Gaebelein, edited by D. Bruce Lockerbie — I have appreciated Gaebelien’s thoughts on education and so was eager to read this book on the arts. Again, he has great ideas and while I don’t agree with everything he says, this book is well worth reading. It is a series of essays and the topics are somewhat varied. Beyond the arts, he also discusses education and Christian involvement in social justice issues. See my full review here

The Virginian by Owen Wister — I seem to have gotten into reading books about particular areas of the US recently (last month was Indiana). The Virginian is another regional novel. I believe it was Montana (definitely some then barely settled western state) in the late 1800s. This was an okay book, not great. Parts were exciting, some parts dragged. Characters’ dialogue was written with their accents and I found some of it hard to understand though I didn’t mind that too much. There is definitely a message the author is trying to get across about easter versus western values. I thought it fell a little flat at the end, And the whole thing is fairly anti-religion. One minister’s character is very badly portrayed. Another more minor one is not poorly portrayed but his thoughts are still deemed irrelevant. It is more about man and his ability. Not an awful book but I wasn’t crazy about it.   

The Liturgy of Creation by Michael LeFebvre — This is a book by a man from my denomination who is a biblical scholar. His thesis is that Genesis 1 is written as a calendar narrative and that its time table and other details should not be taken literally or scientifically. It was definitely an interesting read. I did not find it hard but my educational background is in biblical Hebrew. It is meant to be accessible to the lay reader but might be a bit of a tougher read. I am still processing what I think of his arguments and will do a longer post on the book so check back soon.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by Daniel Treier — This book is not meant to be read cover-to-cover but I did so. It is an introductory guide to evangelical theology and as such is very good and useful. I plan to have my high schoolers read selections in homeschool next year. Some subjects or viewpoints are covered fairly briefly but if you are looking to get just a fly-over of the views on a particular topic and the major controversies, this is a good resource.  Treier does often give his own opinions; I did not think the book was without a slant, but it is a resource I am glad to now have at my disposal. 

What have you been reading?


Book Review: The Christian, The Arts and Truth

Dear Reader,

Frank Gaebelein is one of my favorite writers on Christian education (see previous reviews of his work here and here) so I was eager to read this volume on the arts. The Christian, The Arts, and Truth [ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985)] is a collection of essays which fit together fairly well. Gaebelein argues for a Christian understanding of and approach to the arts and the humanities in general.

A common theme of the book is that genius, including artistic genius, is a gift of God, falling under the heading of common grace, and that when we despise the work of non-Christians we reject what God has given (pp. 54, 64, 66, 76, 252). He urges us to judge art based on its quality and the truth it conveys, not based on the character of the artist (p. 67).

Christians should not abandon the field of art to secular society. They must engage in the arts (p. 71) and they must do so with discrimination. Gaebelein is quite critical of Christian art which finds its only justification in being Christian and ignores standards of beauty and taste. “[I]inferior art,” he tells us, “doesn’t become true and good art because it is baptized by religious usage” (p. 65).

What then are the standards by which art –both Christian and non-Christian — should be judged? Gaebelein holds up the Scriptures, themselves a piece of art, as the standard of excellence (p. 70) and looks to them for answers. It is important to note, however, that while truth is always truth, beauty is not inherently true but can be used to communicate lies (p. 47). Those fields which are most subjective, including the arts, are most prone to corruption (pp. 74-5, 127). What Gaebeleien most looks for in art, then, is truth. He goes on to delineate four marks of truth in art: durability (ability to speak to other eras), unity (of form and structure with meaning), integrity, and inevitability (pp. 86-93). Integrity demands that each part of the work contribute to the whole and inevitability is that quality that makes you hear or see a new piece of art and say, “ah, this is how it should be.”

Gaebelein goes on to discuss various specific topics related to his overall theme: education, music (with a chapter in Beethoven particularly), literature (with a chapter on Pilgrim’s Progress), and social justice. I cannot relate all of this (and you should read the book yourself), but here are some of the points which most struck me:

In the context of his discussion of the arts and education, Gaebelein makes a plea for high standards, the highest standards in fact. His call is for excellence, a standard which cannot be measured by human means:

“There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” (p. 143)

Though Gaebelein here does not explicitly argue against classical models of education, he does point us again and again to God and His Word as the proper models of excellence. It is these he identifies with the “vision of greatness” which Alfred North Whitehead called for in his oft-repeated: “‘Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness'” (p. 189).

I have argued for a fairly non-standardized form of education and I was happy to see theological arguments for this. In addition to arguing for high standards by which to measure knowledge, Gaebelien, following Pascal, also argues that we must allow independent, unique thought:

“In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” (p. 152)

In his section on literature, Gaebelein shows how even non-believing authors used to be quite immersed in biblical language which infiltrated their writing, both through direct references and in terms of style. This is actually quite a convicting section. Most of us today, I fear, just don’t have this deep familiarity with the Scriptures.

Of course, Christian writers (hopefully) have something more as well. Gaebelien uses a German word Weltanschauung which roughly translates to “worldview” to describe it.  It is “a God-centered view of life and the world” which “will color all of his work and all of his thinking”  (p. 186). Such a pervasive perspective is not limited to writers but should be held by all Christians no matter their field. This is an idea we have seen in a number of writers (and I have argued for something similar in education). Gaebelein here sums it up well. I have struggled to find just the right word to encapsulate the idea and I like the appeal to a German term as it takes it beyond our usual vocabulary (“worldview” etc.) which has a tendency to get quite trite and overused.

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth has a lot to recommend it. Gaebelein presents a vision that is quite compelling. It is hard not to be inspired and humbled by his devotion to the Word of God. The book itself comes in manageable chunks and is easy to read. Overall, this is a book well worth one’s time.







Books Read: March 2020

Dear Reader,

It’s that time again. Here are the books I read this past month:

Books Read March 2020

The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain — I have a series of posts coming out on this book. My short take on it would be that while I don’t agree with all of it, it is the best book I have read from classical educators. 

Scottish Covenanter Stories by Dane Love — The review I had read of this book was that the style is not over-engaging but the stories speak for themselves and make it worth reading. I would say that about sums it up. Short chapters make for easy chunks of reading. What these people endured for their faith is amazing.

Tracker: The Story of Tom Brown as told to William Jon Watkins — I pre-read this book for my high school daughter’s homeschool nature lore. I quite enjoyed it. It is the true story of a boy growing up in New Jersey who learns tracking and survival skills from an older Native American man. The whole thing is interesting and well-written. It was one of those books where I can imagine myself there in the woods. There is a bit of mystical religiosity to it (as one might expect from a Native American perspective) but it wouldn’t bother me to give to an older child.  There is also one tiny adult bit that might easily go past a child unnoticed. One of the biggest dangers might be that it will inspire your own child to go spend days at a time in the woods. I am definitely adding this one to my list of nature lore books.

The Gentleman from Indiana by Booth Tarkington — I have heard that this is Tarkington’s best book and if so, I won’t need to read any others of his. It was not all bad. At times it was engaging and the action was exciting and the characters likable. But I felt that it fell flat and that there was no great message here. And to the extent that there was a message, it was that all men will be good if just given the right circumstances. I have read a couple of other books recently (Of Human Bondage and The Passage) in which the authors did not seem to be believers and ended up with different conclusions about life than I would but they seemed at least to struggle more with the issues and to be on the verge of something profound that just escaped them. That was not the case this time. The Gentleman from Indiana was not a bad book but there just wasn’t much there. 

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen — This is a book my college-age daughter had had from a class and left around the house. Since it seems to be a well-known one, I thought I should read it. It tells the true story of the author’s time in a mental hospital as a young adult in the 1960s.  It was a short, easy read and the characters were likable. There was a fair amount of crudeness and adult content (though one might argue it is integral to the plot) so that I am not keeping it around my house. My main problem with the book is that it just isn’t very deep. I am also reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (also very crude) and that at least seems to have layers of meaning and something deeper to say. In Girl Interrupted though the author writes as an adult much after her experiences, one feels she has not yet come to terms with them. It is her story but it does not go beyond that.

What have you been reading?


Reformed Christian Education: What to Read

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find them all here.

I have read and given my thoughts on many articles over the past year+ but I realize a lot of that information is scattered and hard to wade through. Today I’d like to give you an annotated bibliography of the best of what I have read so you can, if you choose, read what other reformed thinkers have had to say on education. (Click the link at the top of this post to find all my book reviews and more.)

Bibliography on Reformed Christian Education

Barclay, William. Train Up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

  • A fairly readable book that gives history of education in Greece, Rome, Israel, Early church. It’s certainly not essential to understanding reformed education but it does give some interesting historical information.

Bavinck, Herman. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

  • Bavinck is a well-known reformed thinker and his work really resonated with me. This book is a series of essays. My favorites were the ones on art and the history of classical education. The latter in particular is well worth reading to understand all the threads that go into what we call classical ed.

Coleburn, Chris.  “A History of Reformed (Presbyterian) Christian Education,” The Evangelical Presbyterian (January,  2011).

  • Not perhaps essential reading, but Coleburn gives a rare historical look at reformed education.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961.

  • Dawson is a Catholic and argues for distinctly Catholic education. He is quoted a lot by other writers and gives a good critique of what is wrong with modern American public education and some history of how we got where we are.

Drazin, Nathan. A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE Nabu Press, 2011 (orig. pub. 1941).

  • As far as I can tell this is a pretty definitive work on what Jewish education was actually like in the period specified. For those who want historical perspective, this is well worth reading.

Fesko, J.V.  Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

  • Fesko discusses natural law and how we have lost it and why it is important. His book is not directly on education but deals with topics like epistemology that have a bearing on it. He is very critical of Van Til. This is a dense, harder-to-read book. 

Gaebelein, Frank E. The Pattern of God’s Truth. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1968 (first pub. 1954). 

____________“Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education,” in Grace Journal, Fall 1962.

  • Gaebelein is one of my favorite thinkers on this topic. He was headmaster of the Stonybrook School in NY. His guiding principle is “all truth is God’s truth.”

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. The Approach to Truth: Scientific and Religious. London: The Tyndale Press, 1967.

  • A thin, easy-to-read pamphlet from a  reformed stalwart.

Lockerbie, D. Bruce. A Christian Paideia: The Habitual Vision of Greatness. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 2005.

  • I don’t agree with everything Lockerbie says but he has some significant ideas to contribute to the discussion. He taught at Gaebelein’s school.

Oppewal, Donald. “Biblical Knowledge and Teaching,” in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators. Lanham: University of America Press, 1997.

  • Oppewal edited this substantial volume. It is not all worth reading but his essay, near the end, gives some needed perspective on the topic of epistemology (what we know and how we know it) though (from reading another book of his) there is much of his own philosophy which I do not agree with.

Schultze, Henry. “The Man of God Thoroughly Furnished,” in Fundamentals in Christian Education, ed. Cornelius Jaarsma. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953.

  • Schultze’s article is a gem hidden in this thick volume. His statement of the goal of education is the best I have read (and, believe me, I have read a lot).

Van Til, Cornelius.  Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974.

  • I have been lead by Fesko to have some skepticism about Van Til’s approach but it is hard to find anyone more quintessential. There is still a lot here that makes one think and ask the right questions.

Vos, J.G. What is Christian Education? Pittsburgh: RPCNA Board of Education and Publication.

  • A thin, easy-to-read pamphlet. This is a great one to start with. I don’t know if Crown and Covenant currently has it in stock but if not, write to them and ask them to republish it.

Wiker, Benjamin and Jonathan Witt.  A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. IVP Academic, 2006.

  • Though a Catholic, Wiker is one of my favorite authors. This book is not strictly on education but it will give you a sense of awe and a desire to learn more about subjects from Shakespeare to chemistry.

Zylstra, Henry. Testament of Vision. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958.

  • Zylstra is another favorite thinker of mine. I love a lot of what he has to say.

Happy reading!






Books Read: February 2020

Dear Reader,

It’s that time again. Here are the books I read this past month:

Books Read February 2020

The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard by Thomas Edward Shields — I have a more thorough review of this book here. Sheilds’ is an older book on education told in a narrative form. Though somewhat dated, it has some good insights. It is not an essential read it is an easy and enjoyable one. 

Eben Holden by Irving Bacheller — Bacheller is the author of my favorite book, The Light in the Clearing. Eben Holden is actually is best-known book. He is a slightly older author. This one is set around the time of the Civil War. It is a sweet, wholesome story. I found the beginning part about when the main character is young more interesting. It reminded me a little of the Little House on the Prairie books in that it tells about settlers in a certain time and place. There is nothing inappropriate in it though it is a little slower and would probably appeal less to small children. It was a good read though. 

The Scottish Covenanters by J.G.Vos — I wanted to like Vos’ history fo the covenanters and I did learn from it. Given what there is available on the topic, this is probably a good choice. Perhaps it is just the time period but even though I have heard a few Sunday school lessons on covenanter history and it was not an entirely new topic, I still found it all a bit confusing. The appendices were actually more interesting because Vos talks about specific topics in them. I was hoping it was something my teens could read but I think they would be too confused to really get much out of it. 

The Passage by Connie Willis — This book had come up in discussion with my daughter so I reread it recently. I remembered loving it and I loved it again this time. It’s one of those books where if you say too much you will spoil it. It is set mostly in a hospital and focuses on a couple of people researching near death experiences. It is funny — not in a laugh out loud way. I found (once again) that I cared about the characters right away and I liked that it doesn’t seem to waste too many words (though it is not a short book). The things the reader needs to know come out naturally.  My daughter has only made it about half way through and her impression was that it was not well-written because it spends a lot of time telling you how the characters find their way around the maze of the hospital. Without giving too much away, I will say that this aspect of the story is actually fairly important both to the later plot and to the whole atmosphere of what is happening. The worldview of the author is not mine. Christians are dismissed pretty abruptly ina straw-man kind fo way. Yet there is material here to make you think. It reminds me a bit of Of Human Bondage (which I read last month) in that the author seems to be saying something profound but then the end falls a little short. It is as if these non-Christian authors have some truth to tell but because they don’t have it all they can’t quite bring it to a good conclusion. I still really like this book though. Willis also wrote To Say Nothing of the Dog which is another wonderful, favorite book and much lighter subject-wise.

What have you been reading?


Book Read January 2020

Dear Reader,

With the new year, I seem to be picking up speed again. Here are the books I finished in January:

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham — I really liked Maugham’s Moon and Sixpence which I read at the end of 2019, so I jumped right into Maugham’s most famous book, Of Human Bondage. I liked this book too in terms of its entertainment value. Maugham writes well and his descriptions of the main character’s insecurities were too painfully real. I was a little less enamored of the overall message. At times it seemed like it would end up being quite insightful, but in the end, I felt it fell a little flat. I don’t want to say too much more than that as I don’t want to spoil the book. It is well worth reading and I hope that if you do, you will tell me what you thought of it. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte — I had read Wuthering Heights twice in my younger years and always remembered hating it. It was recommended by someone I respect recently on a podcast so I thought I had better give it another try. I listened to it as an audiobook on Librivox. I will say for it that the story keeps going. It is not a dull book. There are no likable characters, however, Those who are “good” are downright annoying and whiny and I spent most of my time wanting to slap them. It’s hard for the parent in me not to think that none of this would have happened if all the characters had been appropriately disciplined as children. Perhaps Bronte was trying to say something insightful about evil but it is lost on me. 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad — I had some problems with the Kindle version of this book and wasn’t actually sure that I had read the whole thing. I looked into it though and found that I had indeed. Having heard of Conrad’s book, I didn’t necessarily expect to like it but I did expect to find it thought-provoking. On actually digging in, I thought it fell a little flat. Perhaps this is because it has a reputation and I had expected it to be more pivotal but I just didn’t think there was much there. 

God Breathed by Rut Etheridge III — (I have done a brief post on some aspects of this book with regard to my main topic which is education; you can find that here.) Etheridge is a (former?) chaplin at a Christian college who writes to college-age students disillusioned by Christianity as they know it. Specifically, he writes to those raised in Christian homes (these are no doubt what he encounters in his work). I am not the intended audience for this book. I picked it up because I have college-age kids and I thought it might be good for them to read or to give to their struggling peers. Neither of my currently in college kids is at a Christian college, however. They have a lot of peers with a lot of weird ideas and a lot of issues but most of them have no church background and they would not start from the same place that Etheridge’s intended audience does. I wasn’t overly enamored of God Breathed. I will start with the pros: Theologically it is sound (not surprising since we come from the same denomination) and I like that he makes a plug for Psalm-singing. In the first third or so of the book especially, Etheridge discusses the philosophical foundations of modern thought, I found these (scattered) sections particularly good and helpful (and I may have my high schoolers read them). Cons: I found the book rambling. It is very stream-of-consciousness. I just like to be able to see where an argument is going and I couldn’t here. There is also a lot of modern language and allusions which I didn’t like. I know he is trying to appeal to a younger generation so this could be a me-issue but I would think a teen/20-something would find them patronizing, like when an adult tried to sound cool. Overall, my main objection s are stylistic and, as I say, I am not the intended audience. I do think this could be a good book for its audience and it certainly couldn’t hurt to give it to them, but it was not my cup of tea (a metaphor which probably shows how dated I am).

What have you been reading?


Books Read: August-December 2019

Dear Reader,

I have been slacking in the latter part of the year, both in my reading and in my posting about it. Nonetheless, here is the latest installment on what I have been reading:

Books Read August-December 2019

The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know by Benjamin Wiker — The short story on this book is that I found it quite useful and plan to have my kids read it this year as we study the period beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation. The longer story is that Wiker is a Catholic and I am a Reformed Protestant and ultimately I am now sure I agree with him, at least in terms of what he wants to see happen and whether it can even happen. His insights into the history of the time and the forces at work are very good though. The long version of this review is here

Tarzan of the Apes by Edward Rice Burroughs — I enjoyed this book. It is light-hearted, easy reading. It reads like a romance novel but it is older so perfectly appropriate for kids. Knowing the Tarzan lore, the ending was not what I expected but I actually liked it better than what I expected. I think Burroughs would have done well to stop the story there though apparently he was quite the marketing pro and expanded the Tarzan legend into the empire it is today. Especially in the first half of the book, it was interesting to read Burroughs’ take on what makes a man different than a beast. I am not saying I agree with him but it was interesting.

The Case for Classical Christian Education by Douglas Wilson — I have some serious reservations about Wilson but since I am studying education, I could not miss his book. I will be posting on the specifics. For now, the short story is that while I don’t agree with everything he says about education, I didn’t find anything particularly heretical in this book. You should be aware that it is one particular take on what classical Christian education should be and not necessarily the final verdict. My long review of it is here.

Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America by Gene Veith and Andrew Kern — This is a thin book which covers a lot of ground in terms of introducing the various modern takes on classical education. The authors’ own views do come through as well but as a whole they are fairly accepting and uncritical of the various forms of classical ed. Again, my long review is here.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway — The story of an American fighting for the Italian army in WWI and the English girl he falls in love with. Though there were slower parts, overall I really enjoyed this book. The parts dealing more directly with the army and the war (WWI) were reminiscent of Catch-22 (reminiscent to me; Hemingway wrote first). The ending had a different feel. This was a hard book to leave behind (which is high praise).

Quiet American by Graham Greene — This was my third Graham Greene book this year and I have enjoyed them all. His thing seems to be to place his stories in exotic settings at times of particular historical interest. This one is set in Vietnam apparently before the official US involvement in the war began. The other books of his which I read dealt more with religion. This one nods to religion but really wrestles more with issues of foreign involvement in local issues and disputes. It was a short book and not a hard read and I enjoyed it and it made me think. There is some adult content (though not explicitly so) so I would not give it to below high school age. 

Beyond Authority and Submission by Rachel Green Miller — Somehow I have ended up reading a lot of books on marriage and gender issues this year. This is one of the best. In general I agree with Miller’s take. You can see a little more detail on her book and my list of other recommended books on the topic here

A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm by Edwin Way Teale — I had had my middle schooler read this “nature lore” book last year and wanted to read it myself. Teale’s books in general are wonderful choices for nature studies for older children (and adults). I was enchanted by the idea of the old farm and surrounding lands in Connecticut. At times the book was amusing; I times I found the style of it a bit slow and tedious, but overall I would recommend it. (FYI, my nature lore booklist is here.)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt — I had heard of this book as being fairly popular and well-esteemed so when I saw it at a yard sale, I picked up a copy. I knew pretty early on that it is about life in Savannah and that it largely gives the flavor of that unique city. It did make me want to see Savannah which I suppose is something to recommend it. I did not know when I began reading that here is a true story of a murder case behind it. This doesn’t come out till about half-way through the book. While the book was somewhat more engaging when the murder happened and the plot picked up, in general I found the book disjointed. I expected when the plot began for all the characters I had been introduced to in the first have to come back and play a role. Some did but many didn’t. Berendt seems to be trying to do two things here and ends up not doing either as well as it could be done. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood which I also read this tear and also was fairly disappointed in. I should add, lastly, that there is a lot of adult content here. 

Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham — I really liked this book. It is short, it is easy to read, and it explores interesting issues and has a good take on them. Simply put, there is a Gauguin-like character here and the book explores art and its power over the artist. The message of the book is a bit hidden, revealed mostly I think by one line, it is a good one (if I am reading it right). I don’t want to give too much away on this one but it is well worth the read.

What have you been reading?


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