How to Not Recognize a Dragon

Perhaps my favorite time of the day is right before the boys’ bedtime.  That is when I read stories to them.  Just this week we finished reading “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.  It is one of my all-time favorite books.  One of the great advantages of being able to re-read (and read aloud) books like this is that the timeless truths that are there get absorbed deeper into the bones.  Things that I might have missed in previous readings come alive for the first time.  What follows is one such experience.  Perhaps the most vital hinge of the plot of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the transformation of Eustace on Dragon Island.  On this island, Eustace encounters a dragon and watches its last few moments before it expires.  He takes refuge in the dragon’s lair, falling asleep on its hoard of treasure.  Sleeping on the dragon’s hoard while thinking greedy thoughts changes Eustace into a dragon.  The experience of being a dragon helps Eustace realize what an all-around nuisance he has been throughout the voyage.  Through this experience and being “un-dragoned” by Aslan himself, he “begins to be a different boy”, and a much better one at that.  But what stood out to me was his initial encounter with the old dragon.  He doesn’t recognize the dragon.  That is to say, he doesn’t recognize the creature as a dragon.  In fact, he doesn’t even know what a dragon is.  Even after he is changed into a dragon, he doesn’t recognize that he is a dragon until the rest of his companions from the Dawn Treader identify him as such.  The reason he can’t identify a dragon is that he “had read none of the right kinds of books”.  He knows nothing of knights, adventures, dragons and battles.  He likes the kinds of books that are “filled with facts and have pictures of grain elevators”.  He has no imagination.  He lives in a world that consists only of empirical facts.  Anything that is not observable, modern or useful is “rot”.  He is thoroughly modern.  It is telling that one of the features of the modern is the inability to identify a dragon.  In fact one of the notable features of the modern world is the persistent slowness of recognizing evil.  It is also interesting that little boys who don’t know what dragons are can end up becoming dragons themselves.  So how do I train my boys (and myself) to recognize dragons.  According to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the answer is pretty simple – reading the right kind of books.

What are the right kinds of books?  Books that engage the heart as much as they do the head.  Books that teach virtue without being “teachy”  (Yes I know that isn’t a real word).  Books that create worlds that we would want to live in.  These awaken something within us.  Something beyond just the story itself, but deeper and eternal.  Beauty, truth, goodness.  We are shaped by the stories we read, the stories we tell and are told, the stories we see and listen to.  What kind of stories are shaping you and me?  Can we recognize a dragon when we see one?

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Returning to Paideia – Education as Worship

Earlier this year, I posted several times regarding the concept or idea of paideia.  By way of review – the concept is best described as the education of the entire person.  The word itself is Greek and much of the discussion around this concept centers on the practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as the root of centuries of Western education come directly from these practices.  But another ancient statement of this idea is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in the great statement of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

“Hear of Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

As stated before – this encompasses the entire person (heart, soul and might) and involves all of life, not merely formal instruction.  It also assumes it continues throughout life.  Although the command involves teaching children, it also includes every sphere of life for all ages.  H.I. Marrou, a French historian of ancient education, spoke of the ideal of not just molding the individual but of providing unity to a civilization – “sharing a single idea, a common attitude toward the purpose of existence” and a “common devotion to a single ideal of human perfection”.   Note the language of devotion.  Education is by its very nature devotional, an act of worship.  When we learn or to put it another way, to truly be able to learn, humility is required.  Learning requires the admission of ignorance.  It involves the submission of the learner to be taught.  One who already knows something by very definition cannot learn it.  That thing can be reviewed or rehearsed, but not learned in the proper sense of the word.  In fact, one of the greatest impediments to learning is the thought that someone already knows.  If I am to learn anything, I have to admit that I need to learn.  I have to present myself to be changed.  This is an attitude of worship.

I consider this in several contexts.  First, there is the context of formal education.  In today’s world of “child-centered learning”, authority is thought of as almost a dirty word.  One thing that is interesting about education in the ancient world is the utter lack of interest in child psychology.  For the ancients, the child wasn’t the point but instead for the child to grow up.  The means were only administered with the end in mind.  And to be sure, there was an end in mind.  What is the end that we have in mind for ourselves or for our children?  In other words, what is the point of education?  In today’s world it all too often is merely a credential, a piece of paper conferred at the end of a prescribed course of study or the ability to make a living.  We have aimed too low.  Or from another perspective we have aimed too broadly.  As Jacques Barzun wryly observes, we have aimed schooling “to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars”.  So what is the point?  For the ancient Israelite it was the love of God.  For the ancient Greek or Roman it involved a “single ideal of human perfection”  or a citizen properly prepared to take his (and yes, in that world it was definitely his) place in the polis, the common culture of the republic.  But what is it for you and I?  We must not substitute means for ends.  The mastering of particular material, the sharpening of skills, the completion of a course or the prospect of earning a living are all worthy goals, but they are not the end of education.  Education is an act of worship.  And it must be centered on a worthy object of that worship.  As a Christian, the end of education for me or for my children must be the conforming of one’s entire personhood to Christ.  This should be more than tacking a few Bible verses onto a lesson plan or muttering a quick prayer before the classwork begins.  True education is apprenticeship.  We learn best what we love.

The second context I think of is parenting.  The Shema refers to talking about the commands of the Lord constantly.  It hearkens back to the day of oral traditions as a means of passing on culture, but to me it highlights something vital that is missing in much of our society.  Vigen Guroian, an Orthodox Theologian who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia authored a book named “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination”.  In this book he references stories such as Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Snow Queen and The Princess and the Goblin as invaluable teachers of virtue.  Though not strictly speaking stories, the commands referenced in the Shema were to be taught not simply as formal instruction but as oral tradition – that is to say, incorporated deeply into the family story that was told and re-told each day in the context of daily living.  Gurioan likewise commends the material of great stories (though not divinely inspired as Christians hold the Scripture to be) as something that can awaken the moral imagination if they are incorporated into the life of the family as read-alouds (or stated another way, as oral tradition).  Storytelling is an irreplaceable aspect of the building of virtue.  The corollary to this is that the lack of storytelling (or the telling of the wrong kinds of stories) leads to the lack of virtue.  We have lost much of the sense of oral tradition within our society, but what is troubling is that stories abound in our culture anyway.  Well, to refine that thought, it isn’t troubling that stories abound in our culture, it is what those stories are that is troubling.  Our children are less and less being shaped by stories told within the context of a family based oral culture.  They are instead being shaped by the stories being told by a mass media popular culture that all too often has an agenda that is antithetical to the values and virtues that as a parent I want to teach.  Paideia depends to a great degree on the stories we choose to tell to our children (or for that matter to ourselves).  What story do we adopt as our own?  Or to put it more precisely, what story do we allow to adopt us as its own?

A final context is personal worship and devotion.  There is an oral tradition in the Christian faith that many miss.  It is the reality of God speaking to us personally and directly.  A vibrant walk with the Lord is impossible (or at the very least deeply impaired) without the frequent experience of hearing God’s voice.  Too much of the evangelical culture in American Christianity downplays or even denies the possibility of the believer hearing God directly.  Scripture is distilled into doctrinal statements or principles for living and immediacy of communication with God is at best held at arm’s length.  But Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27).  How to hear God is a whole other topic.  I would recommend my friend Alan Smith’s book “Unveiled: The Transforming Power of God’s Presence and Voice” as a terrific introduction and guide to this topic, but to put it simply – a life of worship and devotion to God requires hearing the voice of God telling us His story and our story and making those stories one.

Flannery O’Connor made a profound observation about stories.  She said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way….You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate”.  So it follows that without stories, any attempt to teach, to learn or to worship is inadequate.  It simply leaves too much unsaid.  I think that if we place education (our own and our children’s) in this context – it makes much more sense.

The Technocratic Illusion

Perhaps the greatest (and least known and read popularly) book by C.S. Lewis was the one he wrote for the Oxford History in English Literature Series.  It was originally titled, “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)” and has since been renamed, “Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century”.  This book took Lewis about 15 years to write and during the process he read EVERY SINGLE BOOK of Sixteenth Century literature in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest part of Oxford’s massive Bodleian Library.  (Yes, you read that correctly – every single book)

The most readable part of this book is it’s long introduction – “New Learning and New Ignorance” – which surveys the intellectual history of this period.  One of the subjects which he treats most in-depth is the rise of experimental science during this time frame.  He puts this rise in the context of other developments of this period – which include the explosion in worldwide exploration and the beginnings of European colonization of the New World (with the corresponding mushrooming of international trade), the fracturing of Western European Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the flowering of interest in magic and the occult during this time frame as well.  In fact, Lewis makes the historical argument that interest in magic and science were related and that Francis Bacon (the leading figure in the rise of experimental science) was aware of this affinity and thought the aim of the magicians was “noble”.  Lewis argues that during this era Europe was “haunted by dreams of power”, an argument that even a cursory examination of the historical events surrounding the exploration of the “New World”, the theological food fights of the competing Reformations and corresponding political chaos would tend to confirm.    Lewis makes the same point in “The Abolition of Man” when he states, “the serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour were twins:  one was sickly and died, the other was strong and throve.  But they were twins.  They were born of the same impulse.”  What was that impulse?  Consider his further analysis.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages.  For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.  For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men:  the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.”

If one thinks hard enough about some aspects of modern science (experimentation on animals – injecting disease into lab rats and the like – or using embryonic stem cells – discarded human tissue – for the development of medical treatments – not to mention the environmental side effects of the mass production of energy necessary to fuel an industrial economy) it does certainly seem like some kind of Faustian bargain for “Progress”.  I am certainly not ungrateful for the positive effects of the modern science and technology  (such as the computer I am typing this post on or the allergy medicine I took this morning).  But the sense of power and progress that these achievements tend to give are certainly not an unadulterated good, free from any dangers or harmful side effects.

Consider also the “science” of economics.  In our political and economic climate one of the arguments that divides is the proper marginal tax rate for the top earners (or “the rich” depending upon your political persuasion – which is a funny description considering that by world or historical standards most of us are wildly rich).  In the past 60 years we have seen top marginal tax rates ranging anywhere from 91 percent to 28 percent (with stops at 70, 50, 39 and 35 at various points in between – the current top marginal rate is 35).  Setting aside the fact these rates often have very little relationship to the actual effective income tax rate is that an individual taxpayer may actually end up paying (once deductions, government transfers and the skills and knowledge of one’s tax preparer is taken into account), one thing that hasn’t changed during all of these years is that we have a relatively small number of incredibly high earners, a vast pool of earners in the big middle and a considerable number of poor people.  Depending on what side of the political divide one finds themselves on, arguments are made that if we just raised the top marginal rate – then income inequality would be reduced and more “fairness” would result or that if we would just lower the top marginal rate – job creators would be unshackled and explosive growth would result.  Both of these arguments depend upon essentially technocratic assumptions (by technocratic I mean the belief/practice that experts can exercise some level – generally thought of as a high level – of control of economic and social conditions by enacting preferred policies).  If tax levels are set correctly, things will automatically be better.  Whatever one’s preferred economic outcome (fairness or growth) is will magically come about.  I am not arguing that tax policy is irrelevant, but I wonder if the Armageddon-like pronouncements of doom if the proper changes aren’t made aren’t just a bit overblown.  If one wants to wander deep into the weeds of economic policy, one will find these kinds of arguments made about much more than tax rates.  But the same assumptions apply, if preferred policies are enacted – preferred outcomes will magically appear.

I am not arguing against the reality of cause and effect (in economics or any other field for that matter).  But the assumptions that we bring into the equation shouldn’t go unexamined.  The biggest assumption present is that we can exercise a large amount of control over very complex matters despite the inability (in most, if not all cases) to know all factors involved.

The Technocratic illusion is not limited to experimental science or matters of public policy.  Perhaps the most salient example that we experience personally is in matters of faith.  If we are not careful, we can mistake faith for a technique.  Whether it is in mistaking correct doctrinal formulation for living faith or praying in a formulaic way (saying the correct words in the correct way) as a means of guaranteeing preferred outcomes, a counterfeit faith can be practiced as a clever disguise for maintaining or grasping for control.  The biggest issue is thereby sidestepped.  That issue is the conforming of one’s soul to reality – the ultimate reality of the Kingdom of God.  Who is in control of our lives?  That is the ultimate question of faith.  It isn’t merely what we believe, but who we yield to.  And make no mistake – we are yielding to someone.  Control is almost always an illusion.  Think of the facts of our lives that we have no control over.  We didn’t choose when we were born, who our parents are, what our gender is or our geographic or ethnic location.  We were born into a station in life – we were assigned a place, whether we like it or not.  But while we do not have control – we do have choices.  The idea of a station in life offends our modern sensibilities precisely because so much of modernity is build upon the assumptions of and the desire for control.  But ironically, it is only when one accepts and embraces one’s station that life’s possibilities really open up.  Jesus said that when we lose our lives for his sake and for the gospel’s, we find it.  It is only when we give up the struggle to be someone that we are not that we can actually be all that we really were made to be.  The wisdom of old hasn’t changed.  Knowledge, self-discipline and virtue are still the only way.  But it is knowledge of God, submitting to the discipline of genuine discipleship and the adding of virtue to the foundation of faith that can actually conform the soul to reality.  We are not in control, but we do have a choice.