Most humanities teachers have some degree of romanticism. It’s hard to teach without it. But sometimes the stories and people we teach seem like faint echoes that bear little relevance to us.
Before proceeding further, I must confess: I am a proud romantic. St. George is my hero, Beowulf is the grandest epic, Susan Pevensie is still alive (do the math), and King Arthur will return one day.
But I am also a pastor and teacher, living in the twenty-first century with the internet, electric cars, nuclear power, and drones. Every day we hear stories about people dying in the saddest ways possible (opioid addiction, accidental air strikes, etc.). Our students struggle to relate to the sacrifice of Hector, the courage of Faithful in Pilgrim’s Progress, or the valor of the Christians at Lepanto. If we’re honest, we struggle as well. The older we get, the more sin and suffering we see. It’s hard to maintain motivation when it feels pointless.
Ours is an age of acedia. We burn through our amusements and are bored to death. We’re like Odysseus on Calypso’s Island, engaging in pleasures every day and night but with only emptiness to show for it. Our nostalgia for a city whose builder and maker is God—that sought by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, the Apostles, Augustine, Aquinas, King Arthur, and the Inklings—is a childlike dream. We walk into our classrooms with a smile, but the smile hides our quiet cynicism.
My heroes have long been those faithful men and women who preserved civilization—some through battle, some through study, some through faithful martyrdom. Having the advantage of historical distance, we can see how God was working through them at the time. But they had no such advantage. They didn’t know how God would use their work. St. Jerome despaired for civilization when the Barbarians were attacking Rome. St. Augustine was more hopeful, but still had no idea how it all would end. The same can be said when the Vikings attacked England, or when the Moors captured Constantinople (we’re still waiting to see the end of that story). Nevertheless, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was preserved in spite of the Barbarian attack, becoming a foundational text for Medieval Christendom. Augustine’s City of God, written when Hippo was surrounded, survived and is one of the greatest works of Western literature. Alfred the Great was scolded by the right old lady at the right time, and consequently England gained her independence. Through small acts of courage, obedience, prudence, and charity, the wisdom of God is declared and preserved for the future.
What would it be like to be transported to the realm of faerie, where stories are alive and not Kantian ideals? Have you ever made a trip to Narnia and Middle Earth, or visited Heorot when Beowulf waited for Grendel, or sat on the peaks of Breeds Hill where the American soldiers reminded the British of what a courageous militia can do? Our job is not only to go to these places, but to transport our students there as well. This is how we defend the Christian West.
My fellow teachers, you are defenders of our civilization. Every day you teach, declaring truth, revealing beauty, upholding goodness before your students. It’s thankless work, just like Jerome’s translation, Augustine’s writing, and Tolkien’s creating an entire language that no one besides him or his literary characters ever used. With every lesson you teach, every book you read, every judicious comment you make, you are laying a small block, applying a bit of mortar, and protecting something precious. You are defenders of the realm against the gods of this age, the principalities and powers who mock us, battle us, and seek to overturn our work. Like Nehemiah’s Judean enemies, our opponents use any method of deception, fraud, threat, and discouragement to prevent the work of rebuilding the fallen walls.
To maintain our hope, we must recapture a picture of who we are. We are no mere mortals in a physical battle. We are eternal beings, soldiers and builders in a struggle that started before we arrived and will continue long after we’re gone.
Whether you teach children or young adults, your students need you. They need your wisdom, joy, and courage. They also need your vision—a vision that transcends viewing everyday work as exercises of banality. They need to see that you are a steward of eternal things, be they mathematics, metaphysics, language, or literature, and that you are passing these mysteries to them, one small block at a time.
The same God who called Peter, Paul, King Alfred, and St. Brigid placed you here as a steward and defender of His civilization. You are God’s appointed servant for this supernatural task and His work will not be thwarted.