One of the possibilities that I am exploring when it comes to church schools is to use the public theology “lens” to look at how church schools engage with the many cross-currents of modern British life, given that this is the field in which public theology plays. There are other lenses, and amongst them are the communal (Wendell Berry gets to be the main guide here), reformed (various Smiths from Calvin University, Nick Wolterstorff and of course Abraham Kuyper serve as guide – although with the latter we are seeing an overlap with public theology) and historical-theological (and here I look to Tom Wright and Walter Brueggemann to help me). There is also the really vital Christian-philosophical perspective, and in this regard, Julian Stern’s recent book A Philosophy of Schooling is enormously helpful as an adjunct to the work of the Christian reformed school of North America. Even brother Wendell provides a useful lens though which to deal with schooling in a scholarly way, and I have probably read more of his work than all the rest put together.
I am writing this in a small, very brown room in a forest outside Mons, southern Belgium. Taxis being absent at la gare de Mons, I prepared to walk the 6,2 km from the station to my hotel, which lies within a large wood adjacent to the SHAPE base. I am here to explore the possibility that I may want to work here. They, the education team based at SHAPE, of course are exploring whether they want me. That is just the way it works. I have to teach a lesson, watch a lesson, present to a panel and have an interview. What I have to say about what I believe about education and what happens in the classroom may not endear them to me, but I am 59 and past caring, really. More of that later.
The road the hotel is on, Chaussee Brunehault, is not blessed with lighting and my walk began after sunset. Fortunately, Chaussee Brunehault proved something of a rabbit run and plenty of cars offered light as they went past. One of the drivers, bless her, stopped and gave me a lift, cutting 20 minutes off my journey. The hotel was lit up not just by its own efforts but also by two police cars blue-lighting away in attendance of another car in a ditch. Hotel Utopia was hard to miss. The picture above, by the way, I take on faith. I have yet to see it in the daylight.
I was moved over the last few days by a number of things, coalescing in some important ways. There has been a key scripture from Jeremiah 17, which the Holy Spirit poured over me on Sunday, early morning:
But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.
It has no worries in a year of drought. That was like an arrow to my soul, challenging and comforting all at once. Drought years come for all sorts of reasons – choice, external circumstances, combinations of the two. This scripture comes in the middle of a highly condemnatory discourse by the prophet of which these verses are the lone positive and encouraging highlight, so I need to pay heed to the warnings that surround this as well. But one year on from finishing at Christ the Sower, at a time when I thought I would be working already, this mattered a lot to me. Reading Psalm 119 this morning (a place to live in, this psalm) I was reminded that I need to live here too:
I have considered my ways, and have turned my steps to your statutes (v. 59).
This is a rich aid to repentance, an examen in the morning light, as we determine to live in the way we are called to as Christians.
The second moving and inspiring source has been watching the end of the West Wing episode entitled Let Bartlet be Bartlet (S1E19). I cannot reproduce the whole script here, though it is worth studying for the way that conflict of perspective results in hope and inspiration. What spoke to me was simply that I want to live my life fearlessly in the fear of God. Youtube has two clips of this, which overlap a bit – watch them both to get the real sense of Aaron Sorkin’s writing and why it is so powerful. He has Leo McGarry say to the White House staff “If we’re gonna walk into walls I want us running into them full speed….we’re not going to be threatened by issues, we’re gonna put them front and center. We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy!”
I always get moved by his writing and the commitment shown by the actors across the whole series. I have said before what a great model for leadership the program is, because it engenders such loyalty and love. And here, it inspires because McGarry can see the greatness in his president being hampered by trying to please too many people and moderate his tone, whereas the real authority is in being his authentic self.
The final piece of the recent jigsaw (I realise that I have gone miles away from the title of this piece, but I may be able to get back!) has been the deliberate embodying of my own personal worship, and my worship in church. Kneeling to pray, seek God, worship, has really helped me focus: this is all an effort to take seriously what Jamie Smith said to us last week. On top of that, I have just finished my first reading of his new book, entitled On the Road with Saint Augustine (Brazos/Baker). It has been a great early morning companion, this book, and I recommend it thoroughly. A short review is here. It has not only been a delightful reintroduction to Augustine, who I have tended to be suspicious of both from my Anabaptist and Northumbria Community leanings and because of the use made of him by positivist evangelicals. Recasting him as a postmodern saint, asking the same questions as Heidegger, Arendt, Camus and Derrida, and yet finding in Jesus Christ and his Father the answer to the longing of his restless soul, Smith paints a lovely portrait of Augustine, Monica, Ambrose and their contemporaries that also serves as a highly autobiographical insight into the author. Easier to read (by far) than the cultural liturgies series, it is a book that needs reading and re-reading, and the chapters are divided into “pastoral concerns” (ambition, friendship, sex, mothers, fathers, death, etc) that take you by complete surprise from time to time.
Why this brings me back to the title of the blog is that Jamie Smith, in his recapturing of Augustine no less than in his other work, provides an important pastoral lens into how I might as a Christian and as an educator, speak into the world of church schools. More than any other writer, he surprises me and makes relevant the cultural world I live in. A conversation with him on Christian distinctiveness would certainly be worth having. Even in a small brown room in Belgium.