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The importance of cultural discernment in Christian education

If Christian educators are intent upon educating their students with truth, both its factual content and the way the truth is imagined, then they must commit to utilize the best of our classical tradition. We have at our fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within value systems that are fully consistent with what it means to be an image bearer of Christ—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent values of truth, goodness, and beauty. We should commit ourselves to such forms because the values they embody shape our students’ imaginations.

path-through-the-forestAllow me to illustrate. Imagine a dense forest separating two cities. In order to engage in commerce between these cities, merchants must pass through the forest. For the earliest of these merchants, this was a very difficult task, wrought with many mistakes and casualties. Eventually, though, over time and with experience, the merchants discovered the safest, quickest route through the forest. Once they did, they began to carefully mark the path so that they would remember the best way to go. Even then, each of these early journeys required careful attention to the markers so that they would not stray from the best way. Over time, however, their regular trips along that same route began to form a much more visible path to the degree that years later merchants hardly pay attention; they doze peacefully as their horses casually follow the heavily trod road. Here now is a well-worn path cut through the wood upon which travelers mindlessly pass from one city to the other. This path may seem mundane, but in reality it is embedded with values such as desire for safety, protection from the dangers of the forest, and conviction that this is the quickest way through. The snoozing merchants do not give thought to these values any longer, but the values are there nonetheless, and whether they know it or not, their journey has been shaped by those values. Those values are, as it were, worn into the shape of the path itself.

So it is with the cultural forms we use to express truth. Aesthetic forms are developed over long periods of time, at first with very deliberate values in view, and those values are worn into the forms through regular use. And when we use those forms in our teaching, our students are shaped by the values that have formed them, whether they recognize it or not.

How we choose to communicate the content of our curriculum forms our students—it molds their behavior by shaping their inclinations through habitual practices, because the shape of the cultural forms we employ transmits their values. Like that path through the forest, when students travel along the forms that we have provided for them, they will inevitably be shaped by the values and beliefs worn into them. It is in the aesthetic aspects of our curricula that a student’s heart, as Lewis said, is “organized by trained habits into stable sentiments,” where a student’s inclinations are discipled and trained, and where the negative effects of worldly values may be counteracted.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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