Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Problem with Heroes

In one of my latest posts, I wrote that children need to know that God is the Hero of history more than they need to know heroes. This is not meant as a depreciation of great men and women of church history, but as a recognition of God's hand at work in the lives of His children. Heroes could never be so without God.

Appreciation for Heroes
I have a great admiration for the characters of my first three children's books and I would love to have one tenth of their devotion to God. As I studied their lives, I came to appreciate more than ever their persistence, their love for the church, their wisdom, and many other virtues. Their samples have come to my mind many times.
They have even helped me with my writings - John Calvin, with his clarity, accuracy, and refusal to write about something that was not certain in his mind; Augustine, with his honesty and courage in pursuing difficult questions; and John Owen, with his catholicity, humility, and ability to relate to our nature and communicate God's glory.
There are, however, dangers in writing about heroes and I pray I can be aware of them in my books.

Biographies as Law
In a recent lecture on Athanasius at Grace Bible Church at Dunmore, PA, Dr. Carl Trueman said that Christian biography tries to answer the question, What is a true Christian? Biographers of different ages replied in different ways. During the first 300 years of church history, a true Christian was a martyr. Martyrdom was exalted to the point that some Christians sought it intentionally (a 4th-century Church Council finally declared that those extreme Christians could not be considered martyrs of the faith).
With the advent of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, persecution became rare. Who was then a true Christian? According to Trueman, it was someone who went off into the desert to spend time in solitude with God. In an era when politics had infiltrated the church, with all the violence and intrigues they entail, escape to a monastery in the desert seemed the only way to live an unadulterated Christian life. Thus Athanasius' Life of Anthony, the first full biography of Christendom.
In the 19th century, a true Christian was a missionary to far away lands. Last century? Of the books of his youth, Trueman remembers exciting conversion stories such as that of Nicky Cruz in The Cross and the Switchblade.
These biographies excite us but often leave us discouraged. Most of us never had an exciting conversion story. Most of us will not travel to far away lands. Even the virtues of Christians of the past, magnified through the biographer's lens, seem out of reach.
My pastor (Rev. Michael Brown) often says that the law without the Gospel can only produce despair or self-righteousness. I think it's the same for Christian biographies when they focus on men rather than God. By elevating the virtues of some Christians of our past, they preach law and, most of the time, don't follow it with the soothing hope of the Gospel message.

Who's the Enemy?
Another challenge in writing biographies is to show internal as well as external enemies. Reading about someone who spent his or her whole life struggling against external opposition is exciting, but detached. In the same lecture, Trueman explained that we relate much more to Augustine's Confessions, where the enemy is clearly internalized (Augustine vs. Augustine) than to Athanasius' Life of Anthony, where Anthony appears as a super-hero fending demons and crocodiles. For children, the story of a man or woman who faces tremendous external difficulties is exciting, but relates little to their everyday life, unless they can read of the inner struggle and the true feelings that accompanied those difficulties.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Athanasius, Augustine is generally forgiven even when he used his authority to impose a particular doctrine on other groups of Christians (the Donatists) because he is to us an open book and we relate to his feelings. We understand the times he lived in and his actions in that context. On the other hand, we find it hard to forgive Athanasius' methods, even when seen in the same historical context, because what little he wrote about himself sounds as an attempt to draw sympathy to himself and to demonize his enemies.
Our kids get a fair share of superheroes today in secular books and movies, which are thrilling and exciting, but the books that make them think are those that dig deeper into the minds and hearts of their characters, like the Narnia or Lord of the Rings series.

Lone Ranger Heroes
Focusing on the accomplishments and the faith of men rather than the God who allowed those accomplishments and preserved that faith can not only present an unreachable goal and appear as law rather than Gospel, but it can give our children a distorted view of Christianity. If our children learn to see church history as a series of great acts by heroes and heroines of the faith, or even just as a flowing of events marked by the strength of those great figures, they will continue to look for important figures in the church today. If the Christian heroes are introduced apart from the church as a whole and the God who is preserving the church through its ordained leadership and its creeds and confessions, they will encourage a type of "Lone Ranger" Christianity rather than biblical humble submission to the church as instituted by God.

Challenged Heroes
What worries me the most is that if the Christian biographies we offer our children don't accurately portray the person and his or her times, the faulty or simplistic image the children formulate in their minds will be challenged and they will not be equipped to answer. As Eric Ives wrote in his Lady Jane Grey - A Tudor Mystery, "In the West, growing secularization ensures that relatively few people even understand the issues which meant so much to [Jane]." One of the main issues at that time was the Lord's Supper vs. the Roman Catholic Mass. That's something that many brush off today. "So, you believe that the bread and wine really turn into the body and blood of Christ and we don't. OK." In Lady Jane's day, the Mass was called an abomination, an idolatrous and blasphemous act, and condescending to it was often equal to apostasy (depending on the cases, of course). Most people today don't understand those strong, compelling sentiments and beliefs.
Take John Owen - why would Puritans choose to lose their jobs, possessions, and sometimes lives to worship in a simpler way, without a superimposed Book of Common Prayer? Or Athanasius - from a secular point of view, what's the big deal between Jesus being God and Jesus being similar to God? Our children need to know.
As I wrote my book on Athanasius, I kept in mind the next Dan Brown who will show up when our children are older (they have been popping up periodically). I would be elated if they remembered my book when someone tells them that the divinity of Jesus was a human invention, that the Council of Nicea was solely motivated by Constantine's political concerns, and that the books of the New Testament were put together arbitrarily by some mean church leader who wanted to hide the truth.
I don't know how close I will come to this goal, but at least it's a constant aim in my mind. I was encouraged by Dr. Robert Letham's comment on my Athanasius book, "It fills a gap between simplistic (and often erroneous) summaries of Athanasius' life and monographs that only scholars would read." He is definitely too kind, but even if I came one step close to do that, it encourages me to continue.

Church History for Children

(Reprinted from Modern Reformation, July/August 2010, by permission. I am the author)

As a homeschooling mother of eight, I have always found the concept of unit studies fascinating. Find a subject of particular interest to the children and incorporate the curriculum into this study. The original interest will keep the children motivated. It makes perfect sense. Actually, this method is not a prerogative of homeschooling situations. I used it as an elementary teacher many years before homeschooling became a popular word. It is really a form of integrative or interdisciplinary teaching.

My dilemma was how to adopt this integrative method with my children while retaining a cohesive educational program. As I went from the Pythagorean theorem to Victorian poems to Baroque music, my children’s knowledge seemed scattered and their perception of history departmentalized and vague. I thought, If they have to study history in a chronological order anyhow, why don’t we incorporate all other subjects into that order?

I bought a huge poster board and drew vertical lines to indicate the major eras of human history. Then I drew horizontal lines to organize this history into the different school subjects—art, music, literature, math, and science. Influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live, I added philosophy and theology. Whether we agree with Schaeffer’s steps or not, the relation between all these disciplines is obvious.

Children love to learn about the past and are naturally drawn to adventures and stories. It was easy to use this natural interest and build a corollary of other studies around it. It was fun to immerse ourselves in each era and understand, as much as possible, what motivated people to act and think as they did. Soon I realized that a deeper understanding of the past, even at a young age, fostered a deeper understanding of the present and of the treasury of notions normally stored in our contemporary minds. In particular, a deeper understanding of the history of the church and Christian thought fosters a deeper understanding of the doctrines, methods, and liturgies we follow today.

There are several reasons why studying the development of Christian thought can be useful to children. I will mention some, not in any particular order.

First, by studying church history, children will develop a respect for Christian tradition. One of my original concerns was that many of our covenant children (mine included) didn’t seem to have a grasp of the continuity of the progress of God’s people throughout the ages. There was, in a sense, a gap between the biblical accounts and our lives today, with a few inspiring stories of some individual Christians interspersed between the two. I felt the need for a sense of continuity. Augustine, Luther, Calvin—and many other great men and women of

church history—were not isolated voices but drew from the tradition of the church before them, and we must do the same.

Second, children will develop a sense of belonging to God’s church throughout the ages. One of the first things that impressed me as I came to Reformed theology was the covenantal relationship of church membership and family, and the strong sense of belonging it fostered in children. How

meaningful it is for all of us to recite together every Sunday the creeds formulated in the first centuries of church history and repeated by Christians throughout the ages! What an honor it is to sing God’s praises as they have been sung by this great cloud of witnesses! As Dr. Robert Godfrey, president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California, is often quoted as saying, “They are our family.”

This point is really connected with the first. When children become aware of their participation in the historical progress of God’s people, they develop a deeper appreciation and respect for their tradition and an active desire to preserve it.

Third, studying church history will teach our children to deal honestly with questions and doubts. It will show how men and women of all times have faced great questions regarding God, faith, and salvation. My hope is that, as they read about Calvin’s struggle to leave a church and belief system he had been upholding for years, or Augustine’s intense battle of wills, they will realize the weight of their choices and the importance of taking seriously the same questions and struggles.

Fourth, as they learn church history, children will realize the inadequacy of simplistic answers. If a child has no idea of the church’s continuous and conscious effort to examine and refine its theological thought throughout the centuries, he/she will think that choosing a belief system is as simple as choosing a hairstyle or a favorite football team. The best choice will be whatever sounds good. Some years ago in a homeschooling office, I overheard two mothers talking about religion. “What’s an Arminian?” one asked. They looked it up in the dictionary and found something like this (I don’t know what dictionary they used, so I am quoting Merriam-Webster): “Of or relating to Arminius or his doctrines opposing the absolute predestination of strict Calvinism and maintaining the possibility of salvation for all.” They closed the dictionary and said, “Okay, we are Arminian.”

How efficient, I thought. They were able to solve in two minutes a question that serious theologians have debated for centuries. Today, most people don’t have time to think. They can

find most answers on Google or Wikipedia. It’s important for our children to realize that the Reformation didn’t simply start by nailing a piece of paper on a church’s door.

Fifth, a study of church history and tradition fosters a critical mind. As children examine different views (including the different heresies and the answers the church has provided), they will consciously or unconsciously compare different thought systems, instead of accepting blindly and lazily the beliefs passed on by their parents. C. S. Lewis explains this well when he writes:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books....Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. (C. S. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius)

Sixth, a study of church history and tradition fosters a tolerant mind. I could also say “a catholic mind,” because this is the meaning I am inferring from the word “tolerant” in this

context. When we read the great theologians of our past, we are often impressed by their thorough knowledge of the Christian tradition, including the apostolic and church fathers and the medieval writers. We should teach our children the humility to recognize that we need the wisdom of the ages, a humility that can function as an antidote to our natural arrogance and from the present attraction to simplistic “just-me-and-my-Bible” solutions. As many have pointed out, sola Scriptura is not solo Scriptura. “An appreciation of history, and of the doctrinal struggles of the church throughout history, are surely crucial to the avoidance of a narrow sectarianism and self-righteousness in the present” (Carl Trueman, Reckoning with the Past in an Anti-Historical Age).

Finally, a study of church history can foster a realistic view, dispelling romanticized ideas of past golden ages. There was hardly a time when God’s church was not plagued by disunity, heresies, and inner struggles. As we impart this realistic view to our children, in the study of history as well as in our lives, we can teach them to turn their eyes on Christ who has preserved his church in spite of its human frailties. As the Jew told Giannotto in the second fictional story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, after seeing the terrible corruption of the church in his day (in the fourteenth century): “[Seeing] that your religion continues to spread and to acquire even brighter radiance, I think I am right to see that the Holy Spirit is at work in it.” Of course, we will not agree with every Christian thinker in our past, but if we respectfully consider their views, we will realize with Lewis that “what is left intact despite all the divisions still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity” (C. S. Lewis’s introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius).

The study of history in general is typically considered alien to the American mindset. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, our nation has “been more hungry for its future than addicted to its past” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition). Carl Trueman agrees:

We live at a time when innovation is of the order of the day and tradition is at a discount. Whereas in the sixteenth century the very novelty of Luther’s ideas was what made them so suspect and, one might add, so likely to be wrong, nowadays, it is the traditional which is likely to be considered wrong and the novel which is likely to be regarded as more likely true. (Carl Trueman, A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning?)

This is just one more area where we have to train our children to go in a direction that is countercultural. While homeschooling is a convenient way to teach church history to children, it is not the only way. It can be taught in informal conversations or included in family worship.

A chart can still be useful to give an idea of the chronological progress. Try also to read some portions of writings from each time period. It might surprise you to discover how simple some of these can be. Presently, I am reading the Letter to Diognetus to my children, a jewel of Patristic literature. To quote Lewis once again (the whole On the Incarnation by Athanasius is worth reading in this respect), “The great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”

Looking back, I wish I had learned church history at a young age. It would have helped me to face other truth claims with a more objective frame of mind and prevented me from ever believing feeble attempts at reinventing the theological wheel.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and Everyone Else

It's hard to sound impartial when writing a biography for children. It's hard enough to be impartial, almost no one is really 100% so, but it's especially hard to convey impartiality to children who seem to have an inborn, strong sense of right and wrong. Theologically, we say it's the Law written in their hearts.

Recently I read my manuscript on Athanasius to a Sunday School class (1st-3rd grades). In spite of my careful attempts to write an objective account, I realized that, after only a few paragraphs, they had already formulated some strong moral judgments in their minds. Athanasius was good - why else would I write about him? Alexander was good because he liked Athanasius. Arius was bad because Alexander disagreed with him. That was clear as soon as Arius died, because Olivia expressed her total dismay, saying, "Oh no! The good guy died and the bad man is still alive!"

Will it help to explain to the children that no heretic ever set out to bring wrong doctrine into the church? or that Arius was as sincere as Athanasius in his efforts to help Christians to have the correct idea of God and Christ, even if, as repeated church councils have convened, his teachings were not scriptural? How important is it to point it out? Should we let the children enjoy a little longer their oversimplified view of reality? Probably, unless the oversimplification is superimposed.

We all want to reduce things to black and white because we like it. We want a world well-defined that we can understand. But the truth is, there are more shades of grey than we thought and we are often afraid to face them. We need to be as impartial as possible in our instruction to our children.

I have recently read an article lamenting the lack of heroes in today's education. The truth is, we have plenty of heroes, they just uphold different values and are more flawed. As an Italian, I went through grammar school with glorious images of heroes of the struggle for Italian unity and independence. Today, Italian children learn the problems that a (possibly premature) unity has caused for the South. With the availability of internet research, children can learn with a click of a mouse the countless flaws of any heroes they may have been taught to admire.

Is this wrong? We can hold on nostalgically to a past populated with courageous heroes and grand gestures, or we can help our children to face reality. We wouldn't be the first generation in history to do that. The "heroes" of the Bible were mostly sinners from dysfunctional families, and yet there was a time when the Bible was read to children straight, and not filtered through cute children's books. The heroes of the true classics, like Odysseus and Achilles, were men struggling with their own passions and incongruities. Still, those are the characters that have mostly shaped my youth. Odysseus' obvious mistakes and misjudgments made him so much more relevant to me than the short heroic vignettes upheld to children as "role models", like Mutius Scaevola (a Roman legendary hero who burned his own hand to show what Roman bravery was all about).

The Hero of the Bible is God, from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is not a book of inspiring stories of great men and women, but is the story, as my pastor often says, "of God redeeming a people for Himself through Jesus Christ." And so the history of the church, from Adam until now, is the story of God continuing to redeem and preserve His people, believers of all nations, simultaneously sinners and saints. Our children need to see God in history more than they need to see heroes, and they are more capable of understanding flaws, putting them in the right perspective, than we may think.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Editing Athanasius

I am having fun editing my book on Athanasius with some children at my church. Yesterday I visited the 1st-3rd grade Sunday School class and started to read the manuscript. Since I could not show the illustrations (not done yet), I drew pictures on the board.
They loved my illustration of Alexander watching Athanasius and his friends play on the beach. As soon as I started to draw some waves they told me I was a very good artist. There is nothing like the encouragement of a 7-year old. They also thought it was unusual to play "church" on a beach and wondered if Athanasius could baptize the other children "for real." They asked if the other children were his brothers and sisters.
When I started the theological explanation of Arius' doctrine, and how he said that if Jesus was God's Son, He had to have a beginning, the discussion became particularly interesting, as someone pointed out that Jesus was actually born. I explained that He was born as a man but not as God. When we hear Arius' formula ,"there was when He wasn't," we automatically understand it as referring to Jesus as God, but children don't, so I made note of that.
The intense discussion suddenly shifted when Adam declared solemnly, "I know why God is not married." He definitely got my attention.
"It's not that He cannot be married," He said, "but doesn't want to because that's the way He is. And He will never get married."
The highlight of the lesson was the hand Athanasius' enemies had brought in as a proof that he had killed Arsenius. Trying to be discreet, when I talked about the hand I pointed at a box, as if the enemies had brought it to Athanasius in a chest of some kind. That had the opposite effect, as Olivia asked me, her eyes wide open, "In our prize box?" I tried to reassure her, but she was not too sure and kept her eyes on the box carefully. "Is it still in the prize box?" she asked me later. This time I persuaded her that it was not.
Her brother Adam had the opposite reaction. His eyes shone bright as he heard of the severed hand. "A hand with blood gushing out? I have seen that hand!" Halloween was only a few days ago...
Sunday School ended there, but I am looking forward to reading the rest of the manuscript to the children. I could not write these books without them!