If you’re a parent trying out classical Christian education for the first time, you may ask, “Why do we read so many secular books?” And if you’re a student, you might phrase it, “Why do we read those ancient dead guys?”
Newbies to classical Christian education might wonder why we bother to mix sacred with secular. Why intersect faith with worldly culture? Why not stick with godly, “safe” authors like St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, or Pastor Bonhoeffer? Why in the world, for example, would we take the chance with the likes of The Epic of Gilgamesh? If you aren’t familiar with this ancient poem, just know that it involves a womanizing king on an epic adventure that would make Bilbo Baggins blush.
When my own son told me about that particular reading assignment, I remembered thinking, “Why are we reading this?”
Yet, my thinking would shift. One of my first years on staff, we were charged over the summer with reading The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. I don’t know about you, but this is not the type of reading I pack in my beach bag. This was not a light read, and I don’t recommend it for your extended family vacation unless your family is much quieter than mine. But one quote I highlighted kept coming back to me. It’s inspired my own search for the answers to this type of faith-culture clash contradiction over the years.
“If those, however, who are called philosophers, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared, rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use … In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them.” Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.40.60.
St. Augustine is pretty clear in his conviction — we should not be afraid to plunder the texts for nuggets of beauty and truth just like the Egyptians were plundered for their gold to use for better things. Just because an author is not a believer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encounter a potential gold mine of material. Obviously some discernment is needed. But what’s important to remember is that the Author of our faith has created all people, and He can use all people to His glory. If God wants to reveal truths, He can do it! I would even stretch it further and say this applies to seeking redeeming value in non-Christian forms of other artistic performances: plays, songs, movies, etc.
It’s one way we intersect with culture — we are in this world, but we don’t have to isolate ourselves away in a Christian bubble and enjoy only Christian books, movies, TV shows, music, etc. What a loss that would be! And what a loss of opportunity. (That’s another blog.) At Covenant, I know my students will encounter culture in ways that is handled with care and concern. We will ransack non-Christian work to ultimately find Christ hidden within. We can make human connections in both secular and sacred texts, knowing God made other creators in this world that reflect Him in different ways.
Getting back to Gilgamesh — what’s redeeming about it? What can we ransack for glory? Well, not to spoil the ending for you, but the king is redeemed. He ultimately realizes that love trumps his own hedonistic quest for immortality. Don’t we want that for all people in the here and now?
Another beautiful example of plundering non-Christian works for godly truths is taken straight from my own 6th Grade playlist. A friend mentioned that I should look into The Cay as an option for a novel, and I’m glad I took her up on the suggestion. In this book, the students encounter a story of unlikely friendship and sacrifice. Young Phillip is living during the times of WWII in the Dutch Caribbean with his family. His mother holds strong prejudices toward Black people and Phillip follows suit. The author wisely uses this little tidbit ironically when the reader finds Phillip shipwrecked on a raft in the middle of the Caribbean with none other than a West Indies Black man named Timothy. The two join forces to battle sharks and the elements to stay alive. Phillip eventually goes blind from a knock on the head, and it takes this physical blindness and total dependence on Timothy to open his eyes to the concept of racial equality.
“Wanting to hear it from Timothy, I asked him why there were different colors of skin, white and black, brown and red, and he laughed back, Why b’feesh different color, or flower b’different color? I true don’ know, Phill-eep, but I true tink beneath d’skin is all d’same.”
At the end of the novel, we see Timothy lovingly protecting Phillip from a great hurricane. With his own body.
Timothy had been cut to ribbons by the wind, which drove the rain and tiny grains of sand before it. It had flayed his back and his legs until there were very few places that weren’t cut. He was bleeding, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Phillip realizes that Timothy clearly gave his life to save him. Timothy sacrificed his own body for someone who was initially racist toward him, who despised and ridiculed him. He sacrificed for someone who was not worthy. Timothy’s love eventually won out.
Hands shoot up when we get to this point in the saga. “Is this a Christian book, Mrs. Loisel?”
And this is where I get excited to show students that even a non-Christian book can hold truth, goodness, and beauty.
And we can ransack it all for His glory.
Sally Loisel, CCS 6th Grade Teacher