I’ve decided to try to resurrect Half-Baked. It’s been some time since I’ve posted, and I never quite got into a regular posting rhythm. My desire is to encourage our church family, and perhaps a broader audience, with a potpourri of content that will never make it into sermons, classes, or small group discussions, but that still may be worth sharing. As I’ve shared in the “about” section, none of the views expressed are necessarily those of Covenant Presbyterian Church or her session.
Below is a catechism that I composed for my Western Thought classes during the last couple of years I’ve taught.. I’ve worked on it over time, and I hope to finish it someday, even if it is for other purposes. One of the great memories from my last year of teaching is my 9 AM Tuesday and Thursday class answering the questions with such great enthusiasm that they could be heard all down the hall.
A Catechism for Western Thought
To be memorized and recited by students
The word “catechism” comes from a Greek word which is used in the New Testament to refer to teaching someone in an orderly and systematic way, by word of mouth, in the form of dialogue–question and answer.  Catechisms have been used since early Christianity to teach the core beliefs of the faith. Some catechisms were composed by individual pastors to teach their congregations the doctrines of the faith, or prepare adults or children to make public professions of faith. Other catechisms have been adopted by entire branches of the Church as their official teaching, such as in my own denomination, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The catechism that we will learn this year will consist of the principles of conduct among each other, the virtues that we are inspired to attain by the literature that we study, and statements from that literature. My reason for doing this is that our primary purpose in education is to become virtuous people. I hope that through this tool, that I will hold myself accountable to the task of instruction in virtue, and for us in the attainment of virtue.
The rules of our class are: Do your work. Don’t be a jerk.
2. What is the fruit of the Spirit?
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
3. What are the seven virtues?
Kindness, temperance, love, self-control, humility, diligence, patience.
Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.
Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath.
A Christian is a person who receives and rests upon Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel, and follows Him as Lord and Master.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence He will come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Honor is the value of a person in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers. It is his estimation of his own worth and his excellence recognized by society.
Shame is the absence of value of a person in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his peers. It is his estimate of his own unworthiness and his disgrace recognized by society.
God reveals Himself in general revelation and in special revelation.
General revelation is God’s revealing of Himself in creation, nature, and providence.
Special revelation is God’s revealing of Himself through His Word and His Son.
Conscience is the writing of God’s law on peoples’ hearts.
Honor and shame; fear and power; guilt and righteousness.
Honor is an evaluation of a person’s actions, which determine a person’s worth, his position, or his value in a community.
Shame is a negative evaluation of one’s actions, which undermine a person’s worth, his position, or his value in a community.
17. What is power?
Power is the ability to act to control or influence people or things in a particular way.
Fear is the terror that arises from the inability to control or influence people or things in a particular way.
The fear of God is the proper state of mind before a being who is altogether righteous, holy, powerful, omnipresent, who made this world, and who governs all his creatures and all their actions. God has had mercy upon his people in Christ Jesus. Thus, his children do not fear him from a foreboding of condemnation, but a recognition of his perfect character and his status as Creator and Governor of the universe, and Savior of all his people.
Righteousness is conformity to God’s law in all our thoughts, words, and works.
Guilt is the awakening of the conscience to breaking God’s law in our thoughts, words, and works.
Because we are corrupted in our whole nature through original sin, the corruption of the whole nature, and all actual transgressions, we cannot become morally righteous before God through our own deeds.
God has provided a righteousness outside of ourselves in the gospel, the righteousness of God, which is from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.’
Faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means through which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
 Gal. 5:19-21
 Heb. 12:14
 Romans 1:17
 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 85.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 1:1.1 accessed August 15, 2018. https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/calvin-institutes-christianity/book1/
For the first time in over a decade, I will not be teaching Homer to tenth grade students. In leaving my teaching job, I will miss my students the most. Teaching them, talking with them, listening and giving guidance, and hanging out with them has been the bulk of my work. In remembrance of my students, I’m posting an article that I wrote last year called “Can Virtue Be Taught.”
Can Virtue Be Taught?
As I write this, another academic year looms ahead. Instead of sleeping late, taking naps, going to the gym, and travelling, I’m now spending my time on creating welcome letters, updating supply lists, adjusting assignment sheets, and answering emails from parents who want to ensure that their “little darlings” are adequately prepared for their first foray into PEP. I’ve taught long enough so that if all I did was change the dates of the assignment sheets from previous years, I would have coherent lesson plans for each class, and nobody would ever know the difference. A decade is a long time to teach the same class with the same books. It’s almost as long as my students have been alive! But this begs the question: Why? Why assign readings from texts that are three thousand years old? Why assign weekly study questions on the reading material? What’s the point of writing essays, taking tests, or even coming together for class? Certainly, the writers at Spark Notes have done an adequate job of summarizing the texts we read, performing literary analyses, and bringing out the important themes of the texts that we read. Perhaps they do a better job than any of us will. So, what is it that brings us together each class day to discuss these texts? Surely people have read these texts and mined the depths of them over the last millennia so that we have nothing to add that has not already been written by someone else.
Some peruse the multitude of readings assigned at Providence Extension Program (PEP) and conclude that we are trying to fill the heads of our students with facts. Again, if this were the case, would not the memorization of Spark Notes be a more efficient strategy to accomplish this end? Why waste the time that it takes to read Homer, Plato, Virgil, or Augustine? Why come to class to discuss these works, if this is our goal?
A number of parents enroll their children in PEP desiring that their offspring be well read and well rounded, chiefly to compete well for college admissions and scholarships. Others desire for their children to earn “high school credits,” whatever that means. To be sure, there are as many reasons for enrolling at PEP as there are families who enroll.
One reason that I never hear for requiring students to complete the lists of readings and assignments is for the student to acquire virtue. There may be several reasons why this goal rarely comes up in conversations. First, we read mostly non-Christian authors who arrive at different conclusions about the “permanent things” such as God, man, the problem of evil, the purpose of life, government, and ethics than the Scripture teaches. That is, that the ancient writers may disagree with the Biblical writers on what constitutes virtue and vice. This objection is fair enough. But when one compares what Homer, Virgil, Euripedes, and Sophocles illuminate as virtuous actions through their characters and actions, one easily recognizes virtue and vice. One sees what the Apostle called, “the law written on their hearts,” even though these writers did not have access to the Holy Scriptures (Rom. 2:15).
It may be that the most consistent objection to the idea that the purpose of education is to acquire virtue is a spiritual objection. The argument is expressed something like this: The Bible teaches that apart from Christ, no good thing dwells in us. Therefore, to attempt to teach virtue apart from the gospel is at best, ineffective, and at worst, to substitute moralism for salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, people will become self-satisfied with their own performance, or that they will despair of acquiring any goodness whatsoever. What we may infer from this argument is that to teach virtue apart from the gospel is to put our ladder up against the wrong wall. Once we arrive at the top, we find that we have arrived on the roof of the wrong building. According to this line of reasoning, apart from regeneration, virtue will not take hold. So, this makes instruction in virtue a waste of time until the new birth takes place.
However, we are happily inconsistent on this point. Parents pray with and for their children, and teach them to pray before a child makes a verbal profession of faith in Christ. Such parents want their children to see prayer as the natural activity of the Christian, and to build habits and encourage in their children the delight of communion with God. Prayer works, not only as a discipline for those who are self-professed believers, but it inculcates the mentality of dependence on God. The habit of prayer brings about the desire to know God and enjoy communion with Him. In praying, we recognize and acknowledge that we are dependent on God for our every need. As we pray, we build the habit of prayer, and we trust that through the due use of the ordinary means of grace, that God will save and sanctify our children, not because these actions accrue merit with Him, but from His promise that He will bring all into His sheep fold all who are appointed to eternal life.
All education is necessarily moral. No matter what a teacher or curriculum intends to teach, something is taught. If a teacher in the classroom of a secular school does not mention the name of God for the duration of an entire school year, something is being taught about God, despite the efforts to maintain neutrality in matters of faith. When a Christian school tacks on Bible verses to areas of study with no apparent connection, something about the Bible is being taught.
James K. A. Smith has written several books about what he calls “cultural liturgies.” Some of his more important insights are, first, virtue is “more caught than taught,” and second, virtue is acquired as a habit. Through continuous practice, one grows to prefer the good to the bad, the genuine to the counterfeit, and truth to falsehood. While disciplines, including studies, consist of outward acts, performing these acts changes us from the inside out. One of the most frequently heard examples of this is the person who takes up running who perceives herself as unathletic. At first, she loathes the activity. She may have fallen victim to a sedentary lifestyle for which even a fast walk is a ‘big ask.” Perhaps her experience with running is that it was punishment for dropping fly balls at softball practice. Or, she’s self-conscious about how she looks in Spandex, and feels defeated about having to walk every quarter mile. But she perseveres, and soon begins to feel better, to have more energy and confidence. She becomes liberated from being concerned about how she looks in Spandex. Along the way, her loathing of exercise is transformed into enjoyment. How did this happen? She dragged herself out the door, day by day, and persevered until running became a habit that not only brought about physical benefits, but transformed her attitude about exercise, and ultimately, her self-image.
Virtue is cultivated by habit. Through training and repetition, one learns to love what is good, and true, and beautiful. While stories aren’t written as morality place, they take us into worlds where we experience truth, beauty, and goodness. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a fantasy adventure story. But in his story, Tolkien shows us heroism, friendship, courage, manliness, self-sacrifice, and the power of love to destroy hatred and evil. Tolkien shows us what is good, and this goodness resonates with our spirit in such a way that we would desire such goodness to be part of our lives.
So while literary analysis, philosophical argument, and Biblical apologetics will be the bulk of what we do in class, these activities are tools. These disciplines are instruments to prod us to acquire virtue, to learn to love what is good. The Apostle Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8 to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” We are to train ourselves in the truth, in goodness, in righteousness, to hate what is evil and love what is good.
If I achieve any success this year, you will be different from your peers. The relativism and privatization of faith and morality gives the impression that virtue is unnecessary for human flourishing. The monetization of every form of public space — from Google to Facebook to Twitter to YouTube and even the credit card swiping machines at the grocery store imparts the lesson that we are first and foremost consumers, and that our happiness does not consist in acquiring virtue, but in consuming goods and services. The connection that we make from the monetization of public discourse to education is that education is consumption. Texts are consumed to pass on information that can be regurgitated on tests or in essay. In this way of thinking, we become what we buy.
However, this perception of the human being as primarily a being who consumes misses the mark. The educational version of this is to see people only as “thinking things,” containers who hold information. In this view, the job of the educator is to fill the container of the “thinking thing” with facts and information.
Writing in the fourth century AD, St. Augustine spoke of sin as “disordered loves.” Because of the Fall of Man and indwelling sin, we love the wrong things, or we love the right things but not in Biblical proportions. We are told to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but our self-love predominates over every object of our love. We love the gifts of God’s creation more than the Giver.
Augustine’s message is, “you are what you love.” We love, not simply with our emotions, but as the Apostle John writes, “in deed and in truth.” It is my hope that we will not only see how our loves are disordered, but how we can rightly order our loves for the glory of God and for the benefit of others.
After twelve years of living in Jacksonville and serving the Lord at Providence Extension Program and Ortega Presbyterian Church, Amy and I are starting on a new adventure.We are moving to Houston, where I have been called as an Associate Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church. So far, they have already lined up many preaching and teaching opportunities for me. We are excited about beginning this new chapter in our lives, but we have made many dear friends here, and have had the privilege of being involved in the lives of many students, parents, teachers, and church members. We’re looking forward to serving the congregation at Covenant. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write and post on a more regular basis while serving in this next calling.
Rod Dreher’s much acclaimed new book, The Benedict Option is being released this week. Having been a regular reader of his blog at The American Conservative, I’m somewhat familiar with his proposal. I’ve also just finished reading Nathan Irwin Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance. While it would appear that the Benedict Option proposal and the Harlem Renaissance have nothing in common, there is much to learn from the Harlem Renaissance from Benedict Option devotees.
For the uninitiated, Dreher’s Benedict Option proposes that what some Christians term the “culture war” has been lost. The Christian faith is no longer the predominant worldview in the West. Christians have accommodated to this development largely by allowing themselves to become absorbed by consumerism and what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a counterfeit of historic Christianity that reduces God to a divine butler. Dreher’s concern is that current Christian practice has accommodated the culture to the extent that professing believers have lost their distinctiveness. In Jesus’ terms, the salt of the earth has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13 KJV). The tradition that the fathers are to hand down to their children has become so diluted, that much of the Church has nothing substantial to pass on to the next generation. Dreher’s proposal is for Christians to “strategically withdraw” for the purpose of returning to the roots of the faith so that Christian practice regains its distinctiveness and has the “weight” to be passed down intact to future generations. Dreher is looking to the past, to the efforts of the monks in the early Middle Ages, who by strategically withdrawing from the world, preserved early Christian literature until such as time as people saw its worth and desired to read and study it and return to the faith of the Fathers. Thomas Cahill tells this story ably in How The Irish Saved Civilization.
The Harlem Renaissance is a literary and artistic movement that fanned the flames of a robust black cultural identity beginning in the 1920s. While this movement, called the “New Negro Movement” at the time featured Harlem as its epicenter, its influence spread throughout America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Historians typically see the waning of this movement beginning with the Great Depression, but its influence continues today. The artists of this period sought to create a distinctive black culture and to foster pride in black identity through the media of literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.
I raise this comparison because the Harlem Renaissance may be a possible sort of template for Christian culture-making within the Benedict option. The Harlem Renaissance was such a diverse movement that not all who were a part of it subscribed to all of the tenets that I mention below. Rather, these are general characteristics that summarize the philosophical distinctives of many of its voices.
First, in the Harlem Renaissance, blackness was promoted as a source of pride rather than a source of shame. Even while living within the constraints of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, many of the voices of this movement promoted pride in black identity. Faith-shaming has made many Christian wary of coming out or living openly as Christians. Even if Christians are destined to be treated as second-class citizens, we need to develop a sense of the right kind of pride in our faith and in our identity, to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to publicly live out our God-given identity in Christ.
Second, the Harlem Renaissance highlights the importance of community.The Harlem of the 1920s created an incubator of culture through a network of artists, patrons, and causes. While there were certainly artists who flourished outside of this community, living in a community that fostered a shared identity and cultural aspiration created symbiotic relationships that enriched the quality and distinctiveness of artistic expression. Not all Benedict Option-minded Christians will be able to relocate to residential communities of like-minded people. But it is necessary to encourage and be encouraged by like-minded people who believe that mining the treasures of the past and appropriating them for today is the way forward to further distinctive Christian living.
Third, while not every creator who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance attained higher education, W. E. B. DuBois promoted the necessity of African-Americans being education classically, as free men, rather than only being apprenticed to a trade. In order to pass down the traditions of the faith, our children must be taught to think broadly, deeply, critically, as free people, hence the importance of a liberal arts education rather than an almost exclusive focus on scientific, technological, and vocational education.
Fourth, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced “high” culture and “folk” culture, rather than mass culture. Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Count Cullen were poets who strove to be great poets, rather than great Black poets. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston incorporated elements of black folk culture in their works. Jazz and blues, the only genre of music indigenous to America, originated from folk culture, then spread to popular culture and high culture. Popular culture, as we know it, was just beginning to develop during this period, so it’s difficult to know to what extent practitioners would have created art for mass or consumer culture. In today’s Evangelical tradition, most literature, music, and visual arts are geared toward mass or consumer culture rather than high or folk culture. Such works are here today and gone tomorrow. Those of us who are practitioners of the arts must aim long-term and seek to create works that will stand the test of time.
Last, the Harlem Renaissance had their own “house organs” to publish and proliferate their works. The Crisis, perhaps the best-known magazine of this period, was the official magazine of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, published and promoted the work of African-American writers. The Messenger and The Negro World were political publications that also published poetry and essays of interest to their audiences.
Print media runs on tight margins today. First Things, Touchstone, and World are fine publications. Alas, Books and Culture ceased operations last year. While web publishing is incredibly cheap (it cost me nothing except for my annual subscription fee to WordPress to publish this essay), putting an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel into print makes a statement. It announces to the world that this work is worth reading and taking up space on one’s shelf. Publishing on the web has enormous advantages in terms of reaching both a targeted and diverse audience. Print is not going away. Certainly, Benedict option writers should seek to publish with the publishers who will give their work its greatest reach. But if the marginalization of Christianity has come, Christians will need to publish and promote their own work, and will need to develop the institutions and organizations necessary to do so.
I’ve watched two movies in the last couple of weeks that have directed my reading and thinking. I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary narrates the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s accounts of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was a compelling movie and one that caused me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices about racism and the development of African-American culture in the United States.
The other movie was Paris After Midnight, a Woody Allen romantic comedy that is set in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is working on a novel. His materialistic fiancee, Inez, ridicules this project and wants him to stick to screenwriting. This conflict becomes more pronounced during the film while Pender considers moving to Paris. While on his way home from a night of drinking and dancing, Pender gets lost and a vehicle picks him up and takes him back to the Jazz Age. Each night at midnight, he is able to revisit the Paris of the twenties, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries from this period. Through traveling back in time, Pended gains the courage to finish his novel and to break off the relationship with his fiancee.
At first glance, it appears that these films have little in common. What stands out to me about both is the question of the “thickness” of one’s tradition. One of the questions that I asked after watching I Am Not Your Negro was, “is the American tradition of social justice “thick” enough to bring about a better future for African Americans? Can Americans overcome race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to create a more just society for African Americans? Are there people who will express the way forward for justice whom both African Americans and whites will listen to?
Allen’s film also implies a question concerning the thickness of tradition. Gil Pender was not able to find enough thickness in the tradition of his own day to produce serious art. Where do we find the resources to produce serious art? Such resources are not going to be found on Google, in popular music, or Direct TV. There’s a sense in which we must recover resources from our past and give a fresh voice to them.
One of the things that I’ve been able to do since the accident is read. I have a stack of books that I’m making progress through. Another stack is gathering dust. Still, another stack is no longer a stack. These books have made their way back to the shelves, but have not yet been properly shelved, giving faint hope that I will get to them.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. This is the biography that inspired the Broadway musical. It’s been on the list ever since I heard about the musical and showed clips to my US History class this past year. Great Read!
Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray. A look at the development of revivals and evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain before the American Civil War.
Homeric Moments by Eva Brann. Reflections of teaching Homer for over fifty years at St. John’s College. This is a good read but a challenging book, and worthwhile to build a stronger foundation in my thinking about and teaching of Homer.
Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson. A guide to the fundamental principles of public ministry and the calling of the pastor. While much of this is material is content I’ve picked up and absorbed over the years, I sure do wish this book was around when I was a young minister! It’s a judicious condensation of the work of the pastor that has spurred me on in prayer and preparing for the ministry of the Word.
Listening to on Audible:
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters At The End by Atul Gawande. Thought provoking book on aging and how the West cares for an aging population. Gawande convincingly shows us how the medical model of caring for elderly people often ignores their desires and robs them of the agency that those of us who are able to live independently take for granted, and profiles residences where elderly people are able to exercise greater liberty and agency in their making, and how this adds years to their lives and life to their years.
On the shelf/nightstand:
The Didascalion of Hugo of St. Victor. A medieval treatise reading, education, and the seven liberal arts. It’s a little challenging to get through with the discomfort I’m feeling so I’ve put it aside for now.
Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose. I’ve always thought that Eisenhower is one of the most underrated and interesting Presidents. I want to get into this one, but it will probably wait until after Hamilton.
How To Read A Sentence and How To Write One by Stanley Fish. I try to keep a writing book going all the time. Right now, the plot of this one fails to grip, but I really haven’t given it much of a chance.
The Power Broker: Robert Caro and The Fall of New York by Robert Moses. I’m about 8o percent through. An interesting and must-read for anyone who is at all interested in the history of “the city that never sleeps.” At 1200 pages, it’s too dang heavy to pick up now!