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Loving Jesus Is Not Enough To Hold A Classical School Together

Prospective parent: We’re really excited about the possibility of Tristan coming here next year. The tour we received of the school was amazing.

Admissions: Great. Well, we have a few standard questions we ask of prospective parents and if you have some time to do the interview now, we might be able to move your application forward.

Parent: Sure.

Admissions: Where do you go to church?

Parent: We attend Sponge.

Admissions: I haven’t heard of that. Is it… a church?

Parent: Yes. Definitely.

Admissions: I see. And why is it called “Sponge”?

Parent: Well, our goal is to absorb the world like a sponge and redeem it for Jesus.

Admissions: Your goal is to absorb the world?

Parent: Yes. We’re not running from the world. No Benedict option for us. We’re running toward the world, like Jesus commanded in the great commission, and we’re soaking up everything the world has to offer, but our goal is to make the world a better place.

Admissions: I’m not sure I understand. What exactly does that mean?

Parent: It means we’re not afraid of video games, wine moms, vaping, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, sports betting, ASMR, Uber, you name it. We want to redeem all those things for Jesus.

Admissions: What does it look like to redeem video games for God?

Parent: A lot of parents are worried about their children playing video games, but Sponge is the sort of church which acknowledges that video games have become an important part of our culture. We have two aspiring professional gamers in our congregation who want to use their platform to spread the Gospel. They also have ambitions of studying video game design and creating Christian video games in the future, which really seems like an untapped market.

Admissions: Sure. And redeeming TikTok for Jesus—what’s that mean?

Parent: At Sponge, we believe that TikTok is the Mars Hill of our era. It’s where the philosophers gather to hash out the business of the day. So, just like St. Paul hung out on Mars Hill, Sponge hangs out on TikTok. Our church has five different TikTok accounts. One is for theology, one is for our youth group, one is for singles, one is for small groups, and one is just for fun.

Admissions: Sponge sounds like a really cutting-edge, modern sort of church.

Parent: Yes, although I should add that while everyone who attends Sponge just calls it “Sponge,” our full name is Sponge.TV Faith Café.

Admissions: So, it’s not a church?

Parent: Not technically. Although, we’re all still “the church,” if you know what I mean. Pre-launch, our marketing team found the word “church” still has quite a lot of baggage, so we went with something that—well, you know. Also, our pastor isn’t a “pastor,” because that word has some baggage, too. Tim is our “spiritual life director.”

Admissions: Of course. It sounds like Sponge is doing some amazing things. I have to ask, though, why you’re interested in sending your son to a classical Christian school?

Parent: Well, it looks like you’re doing some amazing things here, too.

Admissions: I certainly hope so. I should say I have concerns about what you’ve said, though. The teachers at this school present themselves as genuine authorities over their students, but they also speak of churches as being genuine authorities. This means that teachers and churches need to be on the same page. If a student hears something very different from their teachers than they hear from their pastor, it’s a problem.

Parent: I agree. Why do you bring this up?

Admissions: Because classical Christian schools pride themselves on not being cutting-edge, modern institutions with no baggage.

Parent: Really?

Admissions: Yes. What were you thinking the “classical” part meant?

Parent: Well, I looked it up online and read about “stages of learning”—little kids like to repeat stuff, teenagers like to argue—and despite the name classical, the whole “stages of learning” thing actually sounded fairly modern. It sounds like this development psychology class I took in college.

Admissions: Did you have a look at our curriculum?

Parent: Yes.

Admissions: It’s filled with a lot of old books.

Parent: Sure. Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it, right?

Admissions: That’s not why students at this school study old books. In fact, there’s a good deal of history which a classical Christian student wants to repeat. Not all of it, obviously, but quite a bit. A classical Christian education aims to give students good taste, which means loving the beautiful old things which have survived the test of time. At this school, we train our students to repeat the theology of St. Augustine, to repeat the philosophy of Plato, to repeat the songs of Bach, to repeat the strokes of Rembrandt, to repeat the proverbs of Solomon, to repeat the courage of the martyrs. There’s a lot of repeating history.

Parent: But you love Jesus at this school, right? And Sponge loves Jesus. Isn’t that enough to make a relationship between the two work?

Admissions: In theory, yes. In practice, no.

Parent: Why not?

Admissions: If your son attends a church which teaches him that new things are sophisticated and productive, but old things are silly, backwards, and ineffectual, he will either believe what he hears at church and despise his school or believe what he hears at school and despise his church.

Parent: There have been differences of belief between Christians for a long time, though. Isn’t it enough that we all love Jesus?

Admissions: Not if we all have different understandings of what “love” is, or very different conceptions of who Jesus is. It seems that Sponge believes “loving Jesus” means cutting as many ties with the past as possible, whereas classical schools believe “loving Jesus” means maintaining a good many ties with the past. Sponge believes “loving Jesus” means accepting and befriending the habits and methods of the world, whereas classical schools believe “loving Jesus” means resisting those same habits and methods. The sorts of things your school wants parishioners to absorb are generally a great vexation to teachers here.

Parent: It seems like the “classical” part of what you do is more important than the “Christian” part.

Admissions: No, although I understand why it might seem that way. The “classical” part is certainly more narrow than the “Christian” part. That strikes me as inevitable, though. If all Christians were classically minded, “classical Christian” schools wouldn’t be necessary. The idea would never have caught on. Merely Christian schools would have been enough.

Parent: So why is just loving Jesus not enough?

Admissions: “Just loving Jesus” might be enough for salvation, but that doesn’t mean it is sufficient for building stable spiritual, fiscal, institutional relationships here on earth.

Parent: Why not?

Admissions: Look, you don’t want me to starve to death, do you?

Parent: What? What a strange thing to say! No, of course not.

Admissions: Then why don’t you add my name to your bank account?

Parent: (laughing) Not a chance.

Admissions: We both love Jesus and I promise not to withdraw more than I need to stay alive. Doesn’t the fact we both love Jesus mean we can trust one another? Doesn’t it mean we’re both laboring toward the same end? Isn’t loving Jesus enough?

Parent: That strikes me as quite a bit different.

Admissions: Do two Christian kids really need to get to know each other before they marry? Or is just loving Jesus enough?

Parent: People are complex. They need to be compatible on a personal level.

Admissions: Agreed. If “just loving Jesus” were enough, though, why are you particularly interested in this school? Why not one of the dozen other Christian schools in town?

Parent: Now you’ve got me wondering the same thing.

Admissions: There’s a tendency among modern Christians to throw the expression “loving Jesus” around as though it’s a universal solution to every theological, political, philosophical, aesthetic, moral and cultural dispute between baptized human beings, and that anyone who says otherwise is being legalistic or petty. However, it’s quite common for appeals to the fact “we both love Jesus” to mean, “You should be open to my way of doing things and if you’re not, you’re being tribal and exclusive.” We’re embarrassed to admit there are deep, real differences between Christians and so we pretend “loving Jesus” can cover over all those differences. However, it’s one thing for a Presbyterian and a Catholic to have a pleasant conversation about Star Wars over a beer. It’s another thing for them to get married. “Loving Jesus” is not a spell that magically sorts out profound differences.

Parent: But there are Presbyterians and Catholics who attend this school. There are dozens of denominations represented in this school.

Admissions: The Presbyterians and Catholics who attend this school have real doctrinal differences. I wouldn’t say that what binds them together is the fact they all “love Jesus,” though. As members of different churches, they’re loyal and obedient to different church governments, synods, bishops, and so forth. What binds them together is that they’re not embarrassed of Christian history, they don’t run from everything that has baggage, and they believe that learning to love beautiful old things is far more important than redeeming the insipid, vacuous novelties of the world.

Parent: Surely there’s a range, though. You obviously have some ideal family in mind, but who possibly meets that ideal?

Admissions: You’re quite right. Given that this school has room for Tristan, and the admission of another student paying full tuition would help our CFO breathe easier, there’s a temptation to admit you—and every baptized applicant—into this school with a promise to “bring you along,” so to speak, or “make you classical” over the years.

Parent: I can live with that.

Admissions: The thing is, we tried that for many years and found it didn’t work out well for the school.

Parent: Why?

Admissions: Long story short, it led to higher turnover among our faculty. They felt their work wasn’t being properly valued or respected. We also found that non-classical students had far more sway over the culture of our school than we anticipated. It wasn’t the classical students bringing the non-classical students along. It was the non-classical students bringing the classical ones along.

Parent: Okay, so if there’s a range, why doesn’t Sponge make the cut? Why doesn’t Tristan make the cut?

Admissions: That judgement hasn’t been made yet, but based on your own report, your church encourages a view of contemporary culture and Christian history which seems largely antithetical to the mission of this school. Your church is excited by the sort of things classical teachers dread.

Parent: When you put it that way, it does seem like it’d be a problematic relationship. I have to say, though, the course of this conversation has been rather surprising. Based on what I’d read online, I was expecting classical Christian education was a “mere Christianity” sort of thing.

Admissions: Yes, that is true. I’m doing what I can to fix that, though.

5 thoughts on “Loving Jesus Is Not Enough To Hold A Classical School Together”

  1. Thank you for writing this. It’s true. I worked at a Christian school that quit being Classical so that they could bring in more students by becoming a charter school, do dual credit with non-Classical schools, and because the school board did not understand it and refused to learn/read more about it. Christian students abandon their faith in college, because they cannot think through the false arguments against it.

    1. To whomever has thoughts on this:
      As a head of school at a classical Christian school, I find it very difficult to find families who already have a classical education mindset. There are not that many adults out there who were raised or trained in classical thought in the field of education. People do not know its value. They don’t know what they are missing. What do you do with families who are sincerely curious about what we are doing and desire to learn? What do you do with families who begin to see its value as we discuss it? However, they know little about it currently. Don’t people need to start somewhere, and that usually would be at the beginning?

      1. This is painfully simple. You educate people WHILE making it clearly known, even in writing, what you are and what you WILL be going forward. Often hidden under these kinds of statements by administrators is an implicit and unspoken statement, “We will bring in whomever and not really force the classical issue at the start.” But if you want to really change American education culture, you must. There is no shortage of “catch-all,” white-flight, affluent, frivolous Christian schools which bring everyone in under a banner of “don’t worry, we won’t believe in too much” and have only frivolity as their unifying practice. These schools not only do not transform human beings, they often end up teaching far worse lessons than even the traditional schools. Taking the time (once again, it’s easy) to clearly articulate the institutional mission and character of quality schooling in new family introductions WILL mean that your school will be smaller for a time, perhaps for a long time. But the question is not a complex one – who do you want to be? If they know little about it, then develop a packet of materials you give to all prospectives that lets them know just who you are and what classical education is. Don’t they need to start somewhere? Yes, and that is when they first walk into the school, not in a classroom where the teacher is given the sole responsibility of attempting to persuade new families who have been sold on something else in the front office and then do not wish to purchase what is ultimately the sole reason for the existence of the school. These are not more “catch-alls” for suburban culture. If you don’t know how to articulate what a classical school is to prospective families, and how to help them understand what they are buying, then you should certainly not be at the head of a classical school.

  2. I was expecting classical Christian education was a “mere Christianity” sort of thing.

    Admissions: Yes, that is true. I’m doing what I can to fix that, though.

    What do you specifically mean by this part of the conversation?

    1. Sounds like he was going to revise the webpage to more accurately reflect their position on admitting students from like-minded families.

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