Louis Markos on Why Evangelicals Are Increasingly Teaching the Pagan Classics

Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. He is the author of 18 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP Academic).


In the fall of 2018, I spoke at Mars Hill Academy, a classical homeschooling co-op in Lexington, Kentucky. It began in 1995 and offers classes in Latin, Western civilization, rhetoric, and worldview, as well as English, math, and science. A cynic might have warned me that I would be greeted by insular families trying to protect their children from secular culture, a rigid Bible-only approach to learning, a legalistic mindset, and a withdrawal from civic engagement.

What I found instead were parents, students, and teachers with a shared vision of an educational program steeped in the Great Books and committed to glorifying God, freeing the mind from the marketplace of idols, and shaping virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens.

I’ve seen this phenomenon in many of the classical Christian schools I’ve spoken at—with some startling moments. Once, while explaining to an attentive group of teachers and students that the classical virtue of courage represents the Golden Mean between a lack of courage (cowardice) and an excess of courage, I asked what Aristotle might have meant by an excess of courage. A nine-year-old boy in the front row with white hair and a piercing glance shouted “bravado.” This young man had already begun to absorb the classics.

As in most schools I’ve visited, Mars Hill’s curriculum balances pagan (i.e., Homer, Aristotle) and medieval Christian (i.e., Dante, Chaucer) authors with major authors from the last 500 years of European and American literature (i.e., Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Faulkner).

In contrast, Western society today is increasingly eager to cut itself off from both its Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman roots. America’s elite universities, and increasingly non-elite ones, have rapidly jettisoned requirements for courses in Western thought (in 2011 the pro–liberal arts group National Association of Scholars documented the “near extinction” of Western Civilization from core curricula at top colleges). If the seeds for this wholesale abandonment were sown in the protests of the 1960s, the anti-Western flame became a wildfire in 1988, when protesters at Stanford University famously chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

In his 1995 bestseller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill argued that many of the pagan (pre-Christian, Greco-Roman) classics were preserved through the Dark Ages by a most unlikely group of people: Irish Catholic monks living in a remote corner of the civilized world. If the country is preparing to enter a type of second Dark Ages devoid of classical thought, another unlikely group of people is arising to preserve the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition: conservative evangelical Christians.

Fundamentalists and Paganism

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom. What could Christians learn from writers who denied the Christian revelation? As for the pre-Christian classical writers, though they might be excused for their ignorance of the Bible, their acceptance of such practices as idolatry, infanticide, and homosexuality rendered them off-limits.

This was the predominant attitude of evangelical Christians in the 1950s and 1960s. Conversely, today Mars Hill Forum is one of a growing number of evangelical homeschooling co-ops that want to raise up a generation of Christians who know the Bible and who live virtuous lives, and who are also firmly grounded in the pagan classics of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Roman Catholic classics of the Middle Ages. I’ve spoken to a number of such groups across the country and have found in each the same contagious atmosphere of learning and desire to be salt and light in the wider culture.

So what caused conservative evangelicals to reverse themselves on the classics?

It started seven decades ago when, in 1947, Dorothy Sayers presented an essay at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Sayers, a friend of C.S. Lewis and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, was a lover of all things classical and medieval. In her essay, she offered her own psychological-pedagogical spin on an older method of education that was grounded in Latin, the classics, and the formation of reason and discernment. That method, the trivium, offered what Sayers labeled a “coherent scheme of mental training,” one suitable to arm citizens against the “massed propaganda” of the modern world.

Latin for “three paths,” the steps of the trivium—grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric—were used primarily as a method of language acquisition. Sayers’ savvy move was to link those three ancient steps to the three modern stages of child development. Thus, in the grammar stage (roughly kindergarten through 5th grade), students memorize the building blocks of various disciplines; in logic (6th through 8th grade), they learn how to construct those building blocks into organized, fallacy-free arguments; in rhetoric (9th through 12th grade), they gain the crowning ability to articulate, defend, and persuade others of their worldview.

Fast-forward three decades to a pastor, author, and speaker who was concerned about the state of public education in America. Happening upon Sayers’ forgotten essay, Douglas Wilson put her suggestions into action and founded the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1981.

Dorothy Sayers thought it highly improbable that her proposals would find a following. But she wasn’t aware of the impact her friend C.S. Lewis would have on American evangelicals.

The Lewis Effect

In response to the legalization of abortion in 1973 and the troubled presidency of Jimmy Carter, many of whose policies alienated the Southern conservative Christians who helped put him into office, evangelicals slowly moved out of their bubble to engage social and political issues. Others took up the challenge of “infiltrating” secular universities with the gospel. To guard their faith during their sojourn in Babylon, they joined groups like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade and steeped themselves in the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, John Stott, and C.S. Lewis.

Increasing numbers of evangelicals found that they could not stop with Lewis’s Mere Christianity. They followed him as he took them to places they had previously avoided: to fantasy lands populated by wizards and talking animals, to a Catholic Middle Ages that was anything but dark and superstitious, and to the pre-Christian works and virtues of ancient Greece and Rome. Scattered pockets of evangelicalism criticized Lewis for his propensity for cigarettes and alcohol, his embrace of magic, and his avoiding biblical inerrancy and penal substitution, but most allowed Lewis to nudge them in wider directions.

Lewis helped unlock in the evangelical soul a longing for things of which they had been taught to be suspicious: tradition, hierarchy, liturgy, sacrament, numinous awe, and literature that was not specifically Christian. In both the medieval Catholic and classical pre-Christian world, evangelicals began to find works that stimulated them to ask the big questions. (Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?) They realized that by wrestling with the classics, they could gain a more holistic vision of how God has worked in history and thus become more effective ambassadors for Christ in a modern and postmodern world.

In some cases, this tectonic shift in the evangelical world has led significant numbers of conservative Protestants to become Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican—not only out of a longing for liturgy and sacrament but because the classics brought with them a re-encounter with the early church fathers. And yet most evangelicals who cross the Tiber, the Bosporus, or the Thames maintain much of their passion for the Bible, the Cross, and the spreading of the gospel. Many stand at the forefront of a new conservative ecumenism.

A related shift happened among conservative Reformed Christians, many of whom were held back from the classics by an excessively dark view of unsaved human nature, believing it was nearly impossible for Christians to learn things of lasting value from pre-Christian writers like Homer, Plato, and Cicero.

But as Mark Noll noted in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Reformed scholars and presses ironically became major movers and shakers in calling evangelicals to pursue a broader life of the mind. It has been the Presbyterians and other Calvinists who have lit the way in classical Christian education. (A large number of classical schools bear names like Geneva, Providence, Covenant, and Grace.)

In particular, a more careful reading of Calvin and the Bible made the difference. The opening chapters of both Calvin’s Institutes and the Book of Romans (1:18–19, 2:14–15) make a foundational distinction between general revelation—the way God speaks to all people through creation, conscience, and reason—and special revelation, which is found only in the Bible, the prophets, and Christ. This distinction is vital to classical education, for it allows even unbelievers who lived before Christ to arrive at truths that are compatible with Scripture.

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Source: Christianity Today