Each time we approach Cycle 1 in Classical Conversations, we receive questions from parents wondering about memorizing the names of Greek and Roman gods with their young ones. Why would Christians want to know the names of pagan gods and goddesses? Can a study of the classical world really be Christian?
I would like to address these questions in two ways. First, when we talk about a “classical, Christian education,” Classical Conversations focuses on the primacy of skills over content. We therefore emphasize the skills associated with the Trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. In the Foundations program, students primarily practice grammar skills through memorization and recitation. In the Challenge program, each hour of the day focuses on a specific skill. The practice of these skills in each seminar—under the formal titles of Debate, Exposition and Composition, Grammar, Logic, Research, and Rhetoric—takes precedence over the content of the seminars. For example, students who study Latin in Challenge are focusing on the skill of grammar. While reading literature and writing essays, students practice the skills of exposition and composition. As they read history from different time periods, students practice their debate skills through speaking, presenting, and formal debate. During the study of different sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics, students are in essence practicing research skills.
At some point, however, in addition to the focus on skills, Classical Conversations must also consider what constitutes the most appropriate content for our programs. This is the subject of my second response. In doing so, it is important to remember that a classical, Christian education necessarily elevates certain kinds of content over others. For example, Classical Conversations promotes the reading of Shakespeare over materials like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We hope to train students to love art, music, and literature that are worthy. In history and philosophy, in particular, Classical Conversations explores the traditions of Western civilization because these topics are intertwined with the history of Christianity and because the ideas from the tradition of the Christian Church shaped the founding of our country.
In the course of their study of the history of Western Civilization, Classical Conversations families will encounter ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Students who understand the basic concepts of polytheism and monotheism will be able to understand the great conflict between the Egyptians who worshipped countless gods and the Hebrews who worshipped the one, true God. This conflict comes to a head during the plagues in Egypt. Many scholars believe that the plagues were God’s direct confrontation of the pagan Egyptian deities. For more information, see this link: http://inthedoghouse.hubpages.com/hub/Ten-Plagues-For-Ten-Gods.
In our Cycle 1 Foundations memory work, students memorize a handful of the names of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. For our community day, young students simply memorize and recite the names, and families at home have a choice as to whether or not they expand on the memory work by reading the myths associated with these gods and goddesses. But as classical, Christian educators, we should not just reject the reading of these myths without giving some thought to why Christian students would benefit from learning ancient Greek history—including learning information about the pagan deities.
Greek society was foundational to Western civilization, and the names of their gods and goddesses appear throughout our historical records and our great literature. Older students will encounter them again and again. For example, on the National Latin Exam, students are asked basic questions about the Roman gods. In their high school studies, students will also encounter these Greek and Roman gods in Christian poetry, including the works of such literary giants as Shakespeare and John Milton. Most significantly, students will also encounter these gods in Scripture throughout Paul’s missionary journeys.
Like Egypt, ancient Greece was a polytheistic society with deities for concrete realities such as the earth (Demeter/Ceres), forests (Artemis/Diana), and the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) as well as for abstract ideas such as love and beauty (Aphrodite/Venus). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul confronts these deities head on during his missionary journeys. In one instance, in Acts 14, after Paul and Barnabas heal a lame man, the Greeks believe that Paul is the messenger god (Hermes) and that Barnabas is the king of the gods (Zeus). My children in fact paid close attention to this story precisely because they knew a little bit about these two Greek gods from their classical studies. We laughed aloud because, as modern Christians, we understand Paul as the preeminent apostle. The ancient Greeks, not knowing this about Paul, assigned Barnabas the leading role of Zeus and gave Paul the secondary role of Hermes. (My husband’s theory is that Paul must have been shorter than Barnabas for them to draw this conclusion). As in the case of ancient Egypt, this story depicts how the Gospel necessarily creates a tension. The Greek priest in this story needed to be shown that Paul and Barnabas were both messengers and that, instead of worshipping these two men, he needed to turn his heart toward the one, true God.
In another example from Scripture, on Paul’s third missionary journey, during his trip to Ephesus, he again runs headlong into confrontation with the Greek gods and goddesses. A local silversmith named Demetrius incites a riot against Paul because his teachings have turned the citizens away from the worship of Artemis. These new believers have stopped purchasing the silver shrines they once took to the Temple of Artemis, so Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths are losing money. They riot in the local theater, shouting in honor of Artemis until the city clerk quiets them and implores them to seek a resolution through the courts (see Acts 19:23-41). Students who recognize the name of Artemis are more likely to pay attention to this passage and to see the truth of how God’s message forces believers to leave behind their old ways of living to follow Him.
In Challenge IV, students read ancient Greek and Roman literature, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. In contrast to some other classical programs, which introduce this material much earlier in students’ education, Classical Conversations waits until their last year at home to pursue these studies because we want the students to approach this content with more maturity and greater knowledge of Scripture. Challenge IV also includes an in-depth study of Old Testament and of theological works, such as Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias, so that students may clearly come to understand the differences between Christianity and other world religions.
In conclusion, knowing the history of ancient cultures, including the names of their gods and goddesses, actually provides Christian students with a deeper understanding of Scripture and of Christianity. Within the context of a firm biblical worldview, and woven into the content of all Classical Conversations programs, rather than being a threat to the Christian faith this knowledge of pagan cultures strengthens and deepens a better understanding of the our faith. Classical Conversations therefore believes that it is important to acknowledge the historical fact that many cultures were polytheistic, worshipping many gods. Throughout Scripture, these cultures (for example the Egyptians and the Greeks), came into contact with the one, true God. We believe that our memory work and the curriculum content of all our programs from Foundations through Challenge IV helps students enter the classical conversations that have been going on since the beginning of time—and we strive to help them to do that in order that, like the Apostle Paul, they may understand and influence their own generation with wisdom, discernment, and blessing. We are training our students to “know God and to make Him known.”
For further reading on this topic, see past Writers Circle articles: