catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


Culture and the Christian

My husband leaned toward me in bed, holding out his book for me to see.  “Who’s Phaedrus?” he asked.  I read the quotation at the beginning of the book he’d been reading, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good—need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

What joy washed over me then.  My husband was not a reader unless the words told him how to do something—throw better pottery, design timber frame homes with more beauty and functionality, understand clients in a way that helped him sell more, enlighten him as to the best ways to handle a wayward and mouthy teenage boy.  While he holds several graduate degrees, he has always read for the trade he was involved in, not for education, not for enlightenment.  But here he was, inquiring after, instead of simply ignoring, a reference he didn’t know.  Somehow in eleven years of marriage I had managed to convey the benefit of knowing more—looking up a word, mining a reference, taking the time to celebrate education for the sake of education.  A real education, including a classical education, moves us from that declining room Gene Wilder leads the parents and children into in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into the magical interior, ablaze with color, richness, and sugary goodness; from the cramped, black and white confines of the minutia of mass society into a world where we take the long view, a world where we are part of a continuum, not simply a fixed point in time.

My love of books and my Master’s degree in English literature could not have prepared me for a moment in which I felt happier to dispense some knowledge. 

“Is Phaedrus—how do you say that name?—from mythology?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, “Phaedrus is a character in Plato’s work Phaedrus.”

Okay, in reality, I said, “I’ll have to check on that and get back to you.  Off the top of my head, I don’t think it’s mythology, but I can’t tell you exactly.  I’ll find out for you in the morning.”  I returned to reading my book (a popular fiction novel involving archaeology, caving, suspense and science), in which I shortly came across a reference to Odysseus (“He returned home with all the speed and determination of Odysseus”) and another to the river Styx (“stygian darkness”).  References to the classics are all around us, whether we are equipped to see them or not.


The education that allows us to understand these references, or the mindset to figure them out when we don’t know them, may not seem critical, but it is vital to society.  Higher education’s struggle to defend a classical education for its students as opposed to basically a technical education necessary for a specific job signals a deeper problem.  Education, in the classical sense, allows us to place ourselves within the larger context of history and humanity.  Education is what inflates our lives from a two-dimensional concern with daily life to a three-dimensional concern with humanity and its struggles, and again to a four-dimensional concern with how humanity has struggled over time.  Pop culture is, as its name implies, reflective of what is popular—concerns, discoveries, likes, etc.—and what consumes the mind of the various public constituencies at any given period.  By refusing to engage in an education that spans time and distance, we refuse to equip ourselves to answer for, participate fully in, or lift ourselves out of (as much as possible) the human condition.

As Christians, a classical education remains imperative—we are, if nothing else, students of the long view.  Our collective condition is explained by an initial act at the dawn of creation, our saving grace offered himself up several thousand years ago and the full consummation of our homeland lies in the future.  We constitute a small part of the pattern woven into a continuous piece of fabric; we are called to educate others, which we cannot do without educating ourselves.  A classical education provides all with the understanding of how humanity arrived at the point in time and space it inhabits, the over-arching struggles and needs and misdeeds. This same education, accompanied with an understanding of popular culture and sound Biblical knowledge, provide the Christian with an indispensable knowledge of how to answer questions about the progression of history and the situations at present in a manner that draws the non-believer in as opposed to pushing him or her away.

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