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Timely Relevance

Written by Douglas Wilson

Education is education for life, and not a process unto itself. It is not self-justifying but rather must be related to the times in which we live. No one wants children to graduate not knowing how to function in the culture they will inherit.

Because this much is obvious, modern educators have made the mistake of thinking that such a relevant education must be a contemporary education, contemporary in all the details. Students study sitcoms and pop songs, thus making sure they will understand neither. Relevance gets measured in terms of “what’s happening now.” According to the common misunderstanding, the contemporary scene is where we seek to get our relevance. But rather, it should be the place where we manifest our relevance—relevance that we did not get from our surrounding culture. After all, the projector is to show the movie on the screen, and not the other way around. In other words the Christian faith in fact must provide relevance to the world not the world to the Christian faith.

C. S. Lewis once commented that whatever is not eternal is eternally out of date. That which reflects the nature and character of our immutable God will always have the same kind of relevance in our changing and fluctuating world. But we must take care here; we must not speak of the attributes of God in a truncated and pietistic way, as though they were somehow removed from this messy world. In other words, the pietist tends to see God’s “holiness” as some upper-story reality that participates in the eternal, and whatever is not “holy” down here (according to the pietist) does not participate in that ethereal realm. And in this sense, participation usually amounts to going to heaven when you die, going to that upper-story where everything finally becomes relevant.  No, great relevance is found here and now.

But the glory of God fills the earth, not just heaven, and His holiness suffuses everything. Learning to think biblically means learning how to see His holiness translating into the world of families, department stores, nations, baseball fields, empires, banking, kingdoms, denominations, gas stations, and classical Christian schools. One of the things we learn from Scripture is that the wisdom of God always interacts with sinful human folly in the same ways. And sinful human folly, being what it is, never catches on. The uniforms change, as do the skin colors, and the names of the people, and the languages they speak, but at the fundamental level, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This phenomenon is what led one philosopher to observe that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. And, reinforcing his point, we don’t really learn that either.

To illustrate, one of the ways the holiness of God translates into this world is in the principle that a man reaps what he sows (Gal. 6:7). The reason for remembering this, Paul said, was that God was not mocked. And yet, from the beginning of the world to the present, countless numbers of people have thought to plant morning glory and still have a wheat harvest. We do this throughout the process of education in a manner akin to trying to sweep water uphill with a broom. We plant indulgence and think to harvest discipline. We plant low standards and think to reap high standards. We plant look-say and think we will harvest literacy. We teach children that life is meaningless and think that they will somehow learn that their lives have meaning. We are then all shocked when some of them take a gun to school for a little nihilistic practicum.

To teach children how God has interacted in the world in the past (both in biblical history and post-biblical history) is to teach them wisdom. This means that they have learned how to view what is going on “right now” with the right kind of Christian detachment. They will not be swept up into the latest excitement, whatever that excitement is. The world has seen “this kind of thing,” whatever it is, many times before, and will see it many times again. And whenever it happens, there are some who understand and many who do not. It should be our deep desire that our children be numbered among the wise, among those who understand.

Picture a high school athlete who has won the state championship in his event. He is on the top of the world (which is fine), but he frequently loses all perspective (which is not fine). To him, this event is unique in the history of the world—at least emotionally. But the ancient writer Lucian knew better and pointed out poignantly that athletic prowess, just like the rest of human achievement, is fleeting. Adults who interact with the young athlete smile indulgently because they remember their own glory days, as Springsteen put it. And they hope when they get old they won’t sit around talking about it, but they probably will.

And this is the meaning of the parable. The United States is now on the threshold of empire. This coming century promises to be our time of empire. These may well be our “glory days.” Lest this go to our heads, we have to remember that more empires have risen and fallen than we have been able to count, and many more will rise and fall. Ours is rising right now, and unless God has suddenly altered the way He has governed our world up to this point, it will eventually fall. These are the times in which we are teaching our children. Now, how can children gain the perspective of centuries, in the light of God’s Word?

An education in the ways of God brings necessary perspective. Two phrases from two different poems should be sufficient to make the point. At some point, all our glory, which is considerable, will be “one with Ninevah and Tyre.” This irony is exquisite. How many observers of the late war with Iraq even knew that one of the cities we captured—Mosul—was the ancient city of Ninevah? There was a lesson to be learned there—if anyone had been paying attention. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

School children need to be taught godly perspective. And how will they hear without a teacher?