Christian Education as Soulcraft

Blake Adams
Kyle Hughes
Sunday, January 1st 2023
Jan/Feb 2023
Blake Adams with Kyle Hughes

Kyle R. Hughes (BSFS, Georgetown University; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, Radboud University Nijmegen) is an assisting deacon and director of catechesis at Christ the King Anglican Church (ACNA) and the inaugural Lower School Principal of The Stonehaven School in Marietta, Georgia. An experienced educator and accomplished researcher, he is the author of Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (Cascade, 2022).

In your book, you connect the category of Christian education with that of Christian formation by characterizing the Christian school as, unusually, a monastery. Would you flesh out this analogy?

According to Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, the monastery was to be “a school for the Lord’s service.” His Rule is, in fact, a pedagogical manual and one of the favorite pedagogical manuals in the history of the West. Benedict desired his monastery to be a school for the Lord’s service. Now, this might require reframing our understanding of education a bit, because a Benedictine monastery doesn’t look like your average K–12 school. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says that an education is “a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision in the heart (the gut) by means of material embodied practices.” With this definition of education, I can more easily make the connection to what Benedict was trying to do with his monks. So we can take what Benedict has to say about (for example) community life, discipline, time, and space, and think about how these should look in the context of Christian schooling.

A school is something different from a church or a monastery, but all three share the same goal of Christian formation. For that reason, I think it is fair to analogize the school to the monastery insofar as the monastery is a compelling model of a place that cultivates a Christian view of the good life.

Asceticism is a key word in your study, which could be off-putting to some Christians. It conjures up images of emaciated mystics and notions such as suspicion of the body, society, and creation. How do you define this word, and what is its connection to education?

Yes, I acknowledge in the book that this word can be a stumbling block for some, especially in the Protestant world. Simply put, Christian asceticism refers to the practices of self-discipline and self-denial by which one seeks to advance in the spiritual life. After all, Jesus says, “when you fast,” not “if ” (Matt. 6:16). Jesus fasts and expects his followers will as well. We can go to Paul and talk about his imagery of buffeting the body, and so on. Some degree of asceticism, which demands that we engage in practices of self-discipline, seems to be assumed by Christians in the New Testament.

To be sure, in Christian history we find evidence of a gnostic-seeming asceticism that appears to reject the goodness of the material creation. But we don’t need to reject the idea of asceticism in its entirety. In The Monkhood of All Believers, Greg Peters writes, “Asceticism, that most monastic of practices, is expected of all Christian believers by virtue of our baptism and is characterized by balance and moderation.” Thus any approach to Christian education has to take seriously the role of the ascetical life in spiritual formation.

As an Anglican, I can go further to say that asceticism is in fact required by our baptismal vows: to renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires of the flesh that draw us from the love of God. Asceticism is simply Christianity on the offensive: a Christianity that renounces something. We do these ascetical practices, then, not because we have this gnostic belief that the world is bad or anything like that, but because we take seriously what Scripture tells us about overcoming the temptations of the world, flesh, and devil.

This is probably a whole separate conversation, but it strikes me that asceticism is perhaps the best antidote to a consumerist, comfort-driven Christianity typical of much of the American church.

You rely heavily on patristic writers to fund your thinking—specifically, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Benedict of Nursia, and Cyril of Jerusalem. Why consult the fathers on the matter of education? What do they know that we don’t? Is your work entirely a project of retrieval, or are there departures you’d make from the fathers on certain matters?

Growing up evangelical, I had no sense of connection with the church’s past. Now I see church history as a spiritual treasure box that is, in fact, my inheritance. The fathers lived in a very different world from us, and yet so much of what they have to offer is timeless. These elements of continuity and discontinuity lead me to describe my project as one in which the fathers can expand our imaginations for Christian teaching and learning.

What they had that we don’t is a clearer picture that we are saved by Christ for something. I think so much of American evangelicalism is based on trying to help get people saved, but there is no question of, “I’m saved, but for what?” The fathers were better at unpacking the implications and the telos of our salvation for both this life and the next.

So when discussing education and our desire to make disciples, we need to move past thinking that we can simply tick the box next to the question “Is this child saved?” and take up a much richer, harder question: “How can I help this particular child, wherever he is at, on his spiritual journey? How can I move him in a Godward direction?” And that is a question applicable to all my students, wherever they are spiritually.

The fathers gave us an imagination for formation, such as how we are formed by sensory inputs and how a Christian teacher can best use secular literature and ideas to shape a child’s soul. But there’s also going to be discontinuity. Women, for example, would not have been involved in most of the educational settings of the ancient world. The fathers were also more into discipline like shaming and corporal punishment with which we have difficulty. Although some things change, so much stays the same.

According to the church fathers, what is the goal of a Christian education? What did they understand about the objectives of education that differed from their non-Christian peers or differed from us?

Like other classical educators, the fathers believed the goal of education was the formation of a certain kind of human being, to cultivate virtue and excellence. In this context, then, the fathers simply centered their understanding of true virtue and excellence on the person of Jesus Christ, such that a Christian education was really about the work of making disciples whose lives would increasingly resemble Christ. This contrasts with even modern Christian approaches to education that may prioritize vocational training or college preparation. Thus if the goal of education is the cultivation of virtue, and all virtues are contained in the person of Christ, then the goal is to become like Christ.

Throughout your book, and especially in the second chapter, you place a special burden on teachers. You call them to exemplify the sort of Christian they expect their pedagogy to produce. Relatedly, the fathers believed that only someone with a long and deep experience in prayer and spiritual discipline was qualified to teach others. Such a person must be more than a teacher—more of an exemplar. However, prayer life is notoriously difficult to measure. How do you advise Christian institutions of learning to prioritize this in their hiring process?

Excellent question. Honestly, it feels like we have to start with something as basic as church attendance. That’s the first (but maybe not the final) step. The pandemic really got a lot of people out of the rhythm of church attendance and membership. But it’s time to call people back to participating in Christ’s church, his body.

Of course, the inner spiritual life is difficult to measure, and hiring is hard right now. If your school is waiting to hire Benedict of Nursia, you’ll be waiting a long time! But at my school, our expectation is that every staff member is an active member at their church. Schools aren’t ultimately going to be the places that train their people how to pray. They won’t have pastoral oversight and discipline. Teachers need to get this from their churches. Sure, we could quibble about which church they’re attending and if it’s really accomplishing these things. But being an active member of a local church is a baseline. Does that get you a Saint Benedict in every classroom? No, but it’s a practical place to start.

What popular theologies are detrimental to Christian education/formation?

My thinking in this regard has been shaped by Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds of Evangelicalism. He helps trace patterns of how Christians have engaged and been received in the public square. Most notably, Renn identified a shift that took place around 2014 from what he calls the “neutral world” to what he terms the “negative world.” Where the former was characterized by a lingering receptivity to Christian beliefs and morality, the latter is strikingly hostile to traditional Christianity. Today we see, for example, a genuine social cost to those who would seek to follow Christ.

The college-preparatory school model of Christian education strikes me as flowing out of neutral-world presuppositions. Maybe in that way, it is akin to the theology of the attractional model of evangelicalism. This perspective presupposes a world that is malleable, open to being transformed for Christ, as is characteristic of a neutral-world emphasis on cultural engagement that takes a largely positive view of the surrounding culture. It downplays controversial issues in favor of finding areas of common ground. This approach, however, is only going to become less successful in a negative-world environment. The inability of Christians in influential positions of power to transform their spheres of influence, much less to resist the formative pressures therein, suggests that the period of hoping a winsome Christian witness will win over society has passed (assuming it ever truly existed in the first place).

There is, however, a deeper pathology at work in the model of the Christian college-preparatory school that will only be exacerbated in the negative world: its telos leaves it vulnerable to the pressures of broader society and college admissions offices. A parent paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition every year at such a school has every right to expect results in terms of college admissions, high-paying careers, and all the markers of success in the world. As such, the neutral-world Christian college-preparatory school implies that you can, it turns out, serve both God and Mammon. You can, in fact, have it all. I think this line of thinking is deeply detrimental to our attempts to form students into Christ’s likeness.

What do most Christian institutions and educators of Christian faith get wrong about Christian education?

How students are viewed. It’s surprising to me how many Christian teachers don’t seem to take the consequences of the Fall seriously. Instead, there is a tacit acceptance of an Enlightenment view of students as basically good, or at least blank slates, that seems to obviate the need for spiritual formation.

We had a highly respected consultant come to one of my previous schools, and his whole pitch came out of Progressive Philosophy 101: children are basically good, and our job as tutors is to help them set their own course. It was couched in Christian language, of course: as image-bearers, we want children to be who they are meant to be in Jesus Christ. You can baptize it in Christianese, but if you don’t begin with the assumption that the child needs to be formed into something other than what he currently is or wants to be, then why engage in this business of spiritual formation? Students need to be redeemed and transformed, and our pedagogy needs to account for this. A school can have the opposite problem, theoretically—where kids can do nothing right—but that’s a different conversation for a different set of schools.

Teachers today must adapt to a rapidly changing context. They often feel like they’re treading water, endlessly experimenting with new things. What is your advice to those Christian educators who feel this way?

Start with one thing that you can realistically do. I take pains throughout the book to say that you can’t do everything. My advice to the tutor is you can start somewhere. My chapter on engaging the senses for spiritual formation, for example, can be overwhelming if you try and account for what your students are taking in through their eyes, their ears, what they hear, what they smell, and so on. So maybe this semester, or this quarter, just think about how you are engaging one of those senses. Contemplate: How do I engage and protect my students’ gift of sight? This might result in making changes in room decor, where students are seated, where they are positioned to look when they zone out, and so on. Any progress with any number of kids is a win. And I would add, how much better would it be if you weren’t alone, if you were doing this with other teachers at your school? Spiritual formation in a school setting must be a cooperative work.

Over the past few decades, the classical education model has made great strides. It presumes a fundamental coherence between all disciplines, resulting in a holistic approach to curriculum and pedagogy. There seems to me to be an analogy here between a classical education and your holistic vision of the student. While you don’t frame your book as a case for classical learning, do you think classicism is particularly well suited to this vision of Christian formation?

Yes and, in fact, I am an administrator and teacher at a classical Christian school that is trying to implement precisely such a vision. To return to the discussion of Christian education in the negative world, I believe that a classical Christian education provides a way of avoiding the deformative pressures of the college-preparatory model without slipping into a fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, world-denying posture. The way forward, like in so many things, lies in the past and in a return to an understanding of education as soulcraft. Insofar as the classical Christian school movement aims to do this by cultivating truth, goodness, and beauty, and by preserving and transmitting the Great Tradition that is our common heritage, I expect that these schools will be better positioned to resist the tides of liquid (post)modernity—to play on a phrase from Zygmunt Bauman—than the Christian college-preparatory schools I referenced earlier. And, perhaps, it may be precisely graduates of these classical schools who will be best poised to rebuild our colleges, workplaces, and communities when our national collective fever breaks and the work of rebuilding begins anew.

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Blake Adams
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack at or Twitter @BlaketheObscure.
Sunday, January 1st 2023

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