I first heard the term “classical Christian” when a fundamentalist explained the philosophy of the school where she worked. Fundamentalist Christians tend to traffic in terms which are meant to lend some sort of secular respectability to their goals. The Oxford Group and the idea of “moral rearmament” had nothing to do with Oxford University or even Oxford, Mississippi. Scientific Creationism did not work out. The new label is Intelligent Design. Now fundamentalist schooling is now “Classical Christian.” But exactly how is it “classical?” The answer is confusing.
Classics a major course of study when I was in the University. A student majoring in this area expects to learn Greek and Latin and study the primary canons of both cultures. I do not know many who decided on such an academic route. Like me, most of us are stuck reading Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, and Plutarch in English translation. I only give a sampling of the authors one could read in such a course.
Christians should include literature from the classical period. Biblical translators rely heavily on the discoveries of ancient Greek philology. Catholics and Protestants debated issues rooted in literature from the ancients. Knowing the original languages of the writers was important to Reformation arguments.
Here is the problem for Fundamentalist church schools. Calling the curriculum provided classical is deliberate misnaming. Parents who heard their children are learning Latin to read Tacitus would ask when would they ever use that skill? The branding relies on the power of the word classical.
An old but well maintained automobile is called a “classic.” The word conjures an imagined past. It has an air of conservatism about it. But there is no reality to the images and feelings. Christianity in the classical era was filled with intense and sometimes dangerous debate. Churches thrived in the first three centuries with no set canon of Scripture. Can you imagine a modern Fundamentalist responding to someone saying, “Who cares what Paul said? Paul was not one of the Twelve. The Gospel of Peter clearly says…”
A Classical Middle Ages
Medievalists know the number of copies of the classics in that era were severely limited. They were used to bolster the status quo of the medieval churches.
When Constantinople fell in 1453, the Renaissance and the Reformation began with the rediscovery of Greek Bibles and other literature. Refugees fleeing the Turks brought these documents. Despite how it may sound, studying classics introduces sweeping changes. It does not preserve.
The proponents of “classical Christian education” desire to achieve goals meant to control people by confusion. The goal is to confuse and preserve an unequal status quo. Theirs is a classics of the middle ages approach.
The Christian Nationalist “Classical” Myth
Classical Christian education is dressed in the patriotic costume of Christian Nationalism. Near where I live a “patriot academy” charter school is being proposed. The word Christian is dropped from its planned “classic education.” But I am sure the Bible is the only ancient text involved.
Protestant Christianity proposes to rediscover the life of the Church that is both pure and primitive. Fundamentalists claim they are taking the plain interpretation of the Scripture and realizing these goals. Reinventing the wheel is not possible. We can improve on it by increasing functionality and durability. But we cannot go back to the drawing board and expect build something different. The Christian nationalist attempts to remake the nation while claiming to get back to the founding principles. The myth-making work is to reframe the historic narrative to blame all social ills on recent innovations and holding and pure and primitive picture of the past.
The assumption of the myth is that eighteenth century men – the founding fathers – were wiser and more honorable than our present day leaders. The (white) fathers who laid the legal foundations were all Christians following the laws of God, we are told. Contrast this rosy picture with our present day politicians. The reason people want to believe the myth is understandable.
The term “founding fathers” is misleading. In the English-speaking world, the town fathers are the presently serving elected and appointed officials. But we stopped using the term “fathers” to describe our political leaders. Americans are cynical about politics and would scoff at the notion today which is the reason founding fathers is so misleading. By continuing to call them fathers, we miss the point of the word.
The founding part of founding fathers is also misleading. Are all future generations bound by decisions made in the past? John Wesley opposed those “founding fathers” because they rebelled against a Christian king. The subjects were bound to the present King just as their ancestors were bound to the royal line in earlier generations.
How many legs does a sheep have if you call the tail a leg? Abraham Lincoln supposedly asked this question. The answer he gave is four. Calling the tail something other than a tail does not change it. American patriots could not be English patriots at the same time. American patriots were English traitors. Patriots of the Confederacy were traitors to the United States. American traitors attempting the violent overthrow of the government cannot be patriots either.
The dead guys of antiquity and the Enlightenment believed they were working out issues of truth and the good life. Sometimes they went down blind alleys for both. Imitating people whose works survived in History was not their goal. A truly Classical education trains one to think about the issues of the text. It was not indoctrination. If it had been, Aristotle would only repeat Plato. Galileo would never have thought to look at the moon through his telescope. The modern era would not be possible.
Classical Christian education is merely fundamentalist indoctrination. Our communities have enough of that.