I may be somewhat out of step with my fellow Evangelical Christians in acknowledging a certain affinity for St. Benedict and the way of life he represents. Mind you, I am not advocating his theological beliefs. There are vast differences between our theological mountains. But, I admire some things about the dedication.
In my time in Europe during my high school years, I made the chance discovery, via the evangelical Lutheran church my host family attended regularly, of the ancient Daily Office. This Daily Office was associated with the early monasteries and prescribed in St. Benedict’s Rule. These folks immersed themselves in the Psalms and the rest of Holy Scripture as they prayed in addition to hymns and chants. Daily prayer structures the entire day and the whole of their life in the Benedictine community. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if our school community of Christians were to take up this practice. If our parents, faculty, administration, staff, student and I did so, it might just change the course of history.
We often must stand against the assumptions of the prevailing culture. Given my strong Christian roots and world travels, I recognize the perils of Christians ascribing to their ethnic nationalisms near canonical status. We see God in view of our culture rather than seeing our culture in view of God. Advancing our national pride can deflect so many from their primary allegiance to God’s kingdom. Indeed, we need to bring our faith into a commitment that grows deeper each day. God’s Word and common sense dictate that this depth can only be reached by reaching to God first.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture (1951) may offer a key to grasping this ideal. Niebuhr’s posits “Christ against culture” is generally associated with the Evangelical Christians who are generally based on the fidelity to the Gospel, not on ethnic distinctives. In my own experience as a follower of Christ and a Christian educator, I find that many of my fellow Christians, especially students, too easily speak of “engaging the culture”without having a strong sense of why they are doing so or of its associated perils. But I get this. Any effort to transform culture may do nothing of the sort if the Christian community does not first recognize the ways in which it is distinct from the culture it aspires to change.
Christianity, by design, is a faith of dissent. We are to be outliers, persons who stand out from the norm. We are to be counter-culture.We are to provide the victory. Often,many churches have permitted the various cultural revolutions to redirect the faith away from the hard path of obedience to one that simply affirms everyone without seeking to transform their affections and their lives by God’s word. It seems easier for Christian schools to declare the love of God without emphasizing the need for the disciplined life as a vessel of this love.Nevertheless, proclaiming a boundlessly permissive love is not the gospel. “Jesus did not die to liberate us from norms for living but to save us from the power of sin so that we might live for his glory in his good creation empowered by the Holy Spirit (Dreher, 1957).”
Our students may or may not recognize that there is a great falsehood we are fed by our post-Christian culture. We are falsely led to believe that we belong to ourselves and that “one’s individual desires [are] the locus of authority and self-definition.” We are indeed not our own but belong to the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ. Just like those Benedictine monks, we as followers of Christ need to embrace order, obedience, and, above all, daily prayer. Where else could one find a community, than in a Christian school, whose very foundational principles and directives contradict our culture of hedonism and egoism and stand in the gap to save the next generation from the perils of a secular life?
Where indeed. Of course,the vast majority of Christians don’t embrace the Christian school. They are lured by the lights and offerings of a secular setting. People visiting this Christian community should see how we have in some fashion exemplified the Benedictine way. We need to be intentional. We need to educate our children, and embody something of a parallel polis—that is, an alternative to the modern political community. We need to demonstrate the fulfillment of living within and alongside the prevailing culture but not investing too much hope in it. We do not want to have our students eschew politics entirely, but have them recognize that no matter who is in administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries.
I enthusiastically agree with Dreher’s (distinguished professor and author) counsel here: “For serious Christian parents, education cannot be simply a matter of building their child’s transcript to boost her chance of making it into the Ivy League.” And: “The separation of learning from virtue creates a society that esteems people for their success in manipulating science, law, money, images, words, and so forth.” It is right to understand education as formation of the whole person and not simply as the key to a better job. This is precisely why our school wants to develop students who love God with all their minds, bodies, and hearts.