Because life is a series of edits

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

On Myths, Symbols & Mascots

In Veritas on September 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm

We've just launched our second annual Veritas Online Film Festival. This year's challenge is to create, film, and tell some aspect of the backstory of our new mascot, Griff the Griffin. Here's the official movie trailer:

For some, a symbol like a griffin may seem purely and simply a pagan symbol that stands for
a religious tradition in opposition to Christ. Although the griffin has been used as a pagan symbol
by some, no symbol has but one, inherent meaning. Our Board of Directors and I recognize this and have attempted to put words to our perspective concerning it.

Symbols mean what people think they mean –
that’s what makes them symbols. Perhaps the best example of this assertion is the cross itself, the
central symbol of Christianity. What would a Roman or a Jew (or, for that matter, just about
anyone) at the time of Christ say the cross “meant” or “stood for”? The answer is undeniably that it
represented the power of the Roman Empire to force its will on the world, and to do so in what is
arguably the most inhumane method of execution that has ever been devised by the hearts of men:

But is that what we think of when we put a cross around our necks or see a cross on
top of a church as we drive by? That certainly is not what the cross means or stands for to most
Christians, including us. It is a symbol of hope and grace, not inhumanity and torture, a symbol of
triumph, not defeat, for all who are in Christ. Its meaning, in other words, depends on the mind of
the beholder. What it once meant to some is not what it now means to others.

The griffin is no different in this regard, as with most symbols. Other examples that come to mind
are the Christmas tree and the Easter egg, both of which were originally pagan symbols that were
co-opted by the Church and, arguably, redeemed. Indeed, a number of orthodox Christian
theologians have noted that because pagans live in God’s world, many of their pagan rituals and
myths and symbols wind up unintentionally reflecting something real and true that comes from Him
(a common mythological theme, for instance, is resurrection, which inadvertently points to Christ,
who is The Resurrection). They don’t mean to, but they can’t help it because they live in His world.

Some Christians, of course, cannot bring themselves to see even symbols like the Christmas tree or
the Easter egg as anything but pagan, and thus they refuse to put up Christmas trees or to celebrate
Easter (which itself is the name of a pagan goddess). According to this reasoning, America should
also drop the eagle as our national symbol because the Roman Empire and Hitler’s Third Reich
used the eagle as their symbols.

Even the symbol of a seemingly more "biblical" animal – the ram, for instance – doesn’t inherently “mean” any
one thing, including “the Lord will provide.” That certainly isn’t what it means to the NFL football
team that adopted it, nor is that what all people associate with this symbol when they see it. Some see a symbol of brutality and aggression (as in, “to ram” something), and still others mistakenly see
it as a goat, a common symbol of Satan.

The griffin has stood for a number of different things throughout history, and it does not belong to
any single culture. Since the middle ages, it has been used throughout western heraldry to symbolize
strength and wisdom. In a number of famous works of western literature (including Dante’s
Christian allegories), the griffin has even symbolized Christ Himself.

More recently, a secular
institution, the College of William and Mary, has adopted the griffin as its mascot because it
combines a “British symbol,” the lion, with an “American symbol,” the eagle, a combination that is
consonant with the history and tradition of that college. Thus, the College of William and Mary sees
in the griffin neither Greek mythology nor Christian allegory, but the nations of Great Britain and
the United States of America. Are they wrong to see this? Not at all. This symbol, like all others,
“means” to them whatever they think it means.

As Christians, when we look at the griffin, we don’t see the ancient pets of pagan gods or the
patriotic emblems of contemporary nations. Rather, we see the biblical symbols of the lion and the
eagle, which are used throughout Scripture to reference Christ Himself as the King (the lion) and as
the divine Son of God (the eagle), as well as to reference two of the four gospels (Matthew and
John) and certain virtues that have often been culturally associated with these animals (e.g.,
strength, virtue, wisdom).

These symbols also appear in prophetic visions about heavenly beings,
such as the book of Ezekiel (chapters 1 and 10), and the book of Revelation (chapter 4). A lion is
not always used in Scripture to refer to Christ, of course. In Daniel, for instance, a lion seems to be
used to refer to a particular ungodly kingdom (not to mention being the intended means of Daniel’s
own failed execution). But this simply underlines the point we made already, that a symbol’s
meaning is not fixed, but is relative, changing, subjective, and contextual. That’s what makes it a

Part of our job as Christians is to take what has fallen and been distorted, including myths and
symbols, and to redeem it. Christmas, Easter, and even the griffin are examples of this, but the same
could also be said of classical education itself, which was “invented” by the Greeks but redeemed
and “made right” by the Christians. Likewise, when we look at this mascot, we see biblical imagery, not
pagan mythology (see Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians about the acceptability of meat offered
to pagan idols for a similar issue facing the early church).

The fact is, there is no mascot we will ever be able to choose for our school that, symbologically speaking, is without possible taint. However, as we have chosen the griffin – Griff the Griffin! – our hope is that our community and others recognize our mascot as one that symbolizes our
aspiration to pursue, to love, and to guard treasure and priceless possessions like Knowledge,
Wisdom, Goodness, and Beauty.

Classical Education in a Democracy

In Books on September 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Great quote shared by friend and Head of School compatriot, Nathan Carr, of Providence Hall Classical Christian School here in OKC:

“Democratic youth must be tempered: snatched from the fire of democracy and plunged into the water of classical education. Only this fire-and-water dialectic will prevent the true advantages of democracy from becoming liabilities. For whereas democracy releases the energy enabling man to gain the whole world, he avails himself of this superabundant force, like Faust, at the risk of losing his own soul. It is the prime objective of classical education in a democracy, therefore, to turn man’s attention away from worldly gain and only the soul’s salvation.”

From Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David Hicks

If the American Dream (Republican or Democrat version) is in there, I'm not finding it.

What Are You Learning?

In Educators, Veritas on September 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm

WiseowlYesterday, instead of the usual opening dialogue of "What's going well?" and "What's going wrong?" I asked our Admin Team a different question to kick off our weekly meeting: "What are you learning?" We took a few seconds to contemplate personally, then after a few semi-serious lessons shared, we got down to brass tacks. I won't speak for the team as to their insights, but I'm glad to let you in on what I shared.

Put simply, after what so many in our Veritas community (faculty, staff, parent, even student) have mentioned as being a very smooth start to our school year, I'm learning that, personally, I can run the risk of being too comfortable and content improving where we are rather than pushing us forward to where we want to go.

For instance, I really don't mind setting up chairs and tables each day when I know that doing so is part of a larger routine/system that will enable others to be able to do their jobs faithfully. And it's a joy checking the WISE Facebook page and quickly answering a question or providing an important link to our website that solves everything for a semi-desperate parent. And there are few greater thrills than just being available for a conversation with faculty and staff members about something they're trying to figure out and, after listening and trying to understand, asking a question or making a suggestion that seems to help.

I could do all of this all day long, but I'm learning that the good can quickly become the enemy of the best if I'm not careful. For me to plateau in chair-setting or Facebooking is not all that Veritas needs if we are to continue to move forward in our vision and mission. I need to be more focused on fundraising, more aggressive in finding new locations for more campuses, on the phone more with leaders in OKC getting the word out about our school, and more committed to spending time in prayer for the whole of our work.

Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful that I don't mind the ritual/liturgical aspects of my role, but while I don't mind them, I don't have the luxury of being able to default to them. I've asked our Admin Team to help me if/when they see me doing what's easy rather than what's necessary, as well as to say something when I'm doing too much of what others can or will do instead of what only I can do for the sake of our vision and mission.

That's what I'm learning, and I wanted to share it with you if/as you pray for me.

What are you learning?

Review: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

In Books, Calling, Church, Thought, Writers on September 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm

One of the benefits of getting older is reading books that bring context and perspective to one's experience of recent history. I remember initially thinking about this during my first year at the University of Missouri as I listened to my American history professor lecture on the Vietnam War. In his early 50s at the time (1989), my prof's passion for both the era and the book he had assigned to us (The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien) could not be denied.

Until that point, whether in high school or college, I had never taken a
history class that had brought me to the present year; like most my
age, Vietnam was about as far as we got, despite all that happened in
the 1970s and 1980s. Attending class and doing the reading for this first college history course, I wondered what it felt like to read and study a book about a period of history one had actually lived through only twenty years previous.

BadreligionThis is probably why I enjoyed New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics as much as I did. Not only have I lived through two-thirds of the past 60 years that Douthat primarily focuses on, but his analysis and contextualization of this period of time within the larger breadth of history (American and otherwise) is quite revealing of how we have arrived where we are religiously, politically, economically, and socially.

In his breakneck-paced prologue, Douthat summarizes his take and cuts to the chase as to where American Christianity is in 2012. Taking a page from The Reason for God by PCA pastor/author Timothy Keller (who wrote a glowing endorsement for the book), Douthat writes:

"America's problem isn't too much religion, or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place…The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of relgions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worse impulses. These faiths speak from many pulpits – conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally relgions and fashionably 'spiritual' – and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christain warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of tradtional Christianity, not the real thing." (p. 4)

From here, Douthat launches out on a 125-page reconnaissance, skimming the fields of the early twentieth century before landing the plane post-WWII during the Eisenhower years. Holding forth four personalities – neo-orthodox intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, evangelical evangelist Billy Graham, Roman Catholic bishop and broadcaster Fulton Sheen, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King – as responsible representatives of the (mostly positive) convergence of formerly-divided houses of mid-century Christendom, Douthat sets the stage for the locust years to come.

The aforementioned convergence began to slow and segregate during the turbulent 1960s, with trouble coming at the hands of both the accomodationists within the more mainline churches and the resisters within the more fundamentalist churches. Over the next 50 years, records Douthat, the pressures of questionable technological ethics, overt political partisanship, temptation from economic affluence, and a "waning of Christian orthodoxy had led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether." (p. 145)

To quote G.K. Chesterton: "When people turn from God, they don't believe in nothing – they believe in anything." These "anything" beliefs are what Douthat uses the second half of his book to investigate and address. And, while he is extremely fair, he pulls no punches taking to task the Christian heresies propagated by liberal scholars (i.e. Bart Ehrman), prosperity gospel preachers (Joel Osteen, et. al.), "God Within" mystics (Deepak Chopra, Oprah), and American nationalists (Glenn Beck, David Barton). The pace of the book slows a bit here, but only because Douthat is thorough in his approach.

Finally, Douthat ends his book with a chapter of conclusion entitled "The Recovery of Christianity," offering "four potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." While he rightly handles what he calls "postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone insitutional Christianity could ultimately renew it," he stumbles a bit in making a distinction between the "emerging" and "emergent" church (they are different) as part of that possible solution, but his other three options are interesting to consider and he presents them with a heartfelt hope for change.

My only other critique of the book has to do with Douthat not always drawing as much separation between Christianity and Mormonism as I would like to see. While he seems to understand that the latter is not just a "funky" subset of the former, I was surprised by occasional "doctrinal issues aside" language used that seemed to minimize any differences between the two, thereby occasionally giving Mormonism more theological credibility than orthodoxy allows.

That said, Douthat's scholarship is well-researched, yet his writing is still very accessible to a popular audience, efficient in thought and prose and briskly readable. And, while his historical interpretation is impeccable, he is certainly no slouch in walking through the nuances of doctrinal debates either, whether they be of the Protestant or Catholic variety (Douthat himself is a practicing Catholic, but he cuts the Vatican no slack, nor does he outright diminish contributions of the Reformers).

Highly recommended.