Rockbridge Academy Blog
This article was written in March 2020 by Nathan Northup, Rockbridge Academy Bible teacher. He went to be with the Lord on November 2, 2023. His legacy will live on through the hundreds of people he loved, served, and counseled, both in his ministry to the church and in the Rockbridge community.
“Kick in the gates of hell! I’ll see you on the other side!” is the charge I imagine a great military commander bellowing out to his troops as they storm forward with swords raised high to take captive the great fortified city: Death. The Lord Jesus Christ said that the gates of Hades (death) will not prevail over His Church. As Christians, we know that we have been delivered from the dominion of sin and death and into the glorious kingdom of our Lord and thus enlisted as soldiers in the great battle, not against flesh and blood but against the principalities in the heavenly places.
In particular, here at Rockbridge Academy, our very motto is to TAKE EVERY THOUGHT CAPTIVE and make it obedient to Christ Jesus. The principle is clear throughout the Christian Scriptures that WORSHIP IS WARFARE when we consider all the oddly warlike language used to describe our journey. Every baptism, prayer, song, sermon, sharing in the body and blood of Christ, hearty joyful giving is an act of war. This war is waged with faith, hope, and love. We’ve been given weapons for offense and elements for defense. We desire that God destroy all of His and our enemies by capturing their hearts and adopting them into His family, enlisting them in His army, converting them to change their allegiances. We pray and preach and praise to this end. So then, when we gather as God’s New Covenant people for corporate worship, we have drawn our battle lines, and we go to war. All who are in this battle were once on the other side of the field and were graciously conquered by our triumphant King who leads us in His glorious procession.
This is why, every Monday in the Dialectic Bible classes, I ask for war stories. These war stories are testimonies of what God was doing in their life during the battle in the previous Lord’s Day corporate worship. Most of the time, the students testify to the Word of God given by their pastors, but we also hear stories of baptisms, confirmations, first communions, missionary testimonies, and more. I will sometimes jest that very rarely, if ever, have I had someone come back from the battle and testify to what a great encounter they had with the only true and Triune God during the tithes and offering portion of the service.
When all is said and done, I desire for my students to see the hand of God working in their midst and to rejoice in what He is doing as He works through them to destroy evil in our lives and the world around us. When we head off to worship Christ our King, let us kick in the gates of Hell so that when we have overcome on that great Day, we can look back across the battlefield and raise our swords and glasses to the One who has overcome and trampled down death by death giving us His very life that we may conquer and live with Him!
When all is said and done, I desire for my students to see the hand of God working in their midst and to rejoice in what He is doing as He works through them to destroy evil in our lives and the world around us.
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, while honoring a different occasion, spoke something that is relevant here:
“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
The tradition of setting aside a particular day to honor American veterans extends back to the end of the First World War, which concluded at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Dubbed “Armistice Day,” it was an occasion to honor the veterans of that great conflict. But because the War to End All Wars didn’t, in 1954 Congress amended the commemoration by changing “armistice” to “veterans” in order to honor all military personnel who have worn the uniform of the nation, whether in war or peace.
However, Veterans Day is just one of three holidays honoring our military. Correctly distinguishing between them is important, if sometimes confusing. Definitions help. Per US Code, a “veteran” is one who served in the US military and was subsequently released on conditions other than dishonorable. The past tense is important. Armed Forces Day, probably the least well known of our martial holidays, honors those who are currently serving. Memorial Day, as the name ought to imply, is for remembering those Americans who gave their lives while serving the nation. Though Veterans Day carries a dimension of this memorial component in that it officially honors all veterans, whether living or dead, in practice the day is largely devoted to thanking living veterans for their service.
So, on this day, Americans of all faiths or none take a moment to remember that we—the many—live under debt—to the few. Christians should be the first to do so. While the “few” we honor today are not specifically the fallen, everyone who has put on the cloth of the nation knows that in the performance of their duty they may be called to sacrifice everything. If we’re right to believe there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, then, clearly, the willingness to do so is not far off. Veterans Day, therefore, is an opportunity to fulfill, in a modest way, the obligation to pause, recognize, and reflect upon the fact that we are a free people free to enjoy the fruits of a free society because since the birth of our nation, some men and some women have willingly stood on freedom’s wall and fought and killed and risked death to keep us safe. In response to such service, gratitude is appropriate.
My own consciousness of this debt is continually reinforced in two primary ways. First by the friendships—both deep and wide—that I have forged with active duty, retired, and former servicemembers through my professional work as a teacher, scholar, and ethicist who focuses on the moral dimensions of war. Their presence in my life reminds me that freedom isn’t free. Second, there is a photograph I have of my paternal great-grandparents standing near a collection of framed portraits of their four sons and daughter, my grandmother. All the children are in military uniform, save one—he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. One among the others, and bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, is my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name. Uncle Ed was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55th Bomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy, when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing him and the rest of his B-24 Liberator’s crew. As providence would have it, Uncle Ed died during the squadron’s first (and only) mission to Slovakia, where their objective was to hit a marshaling yard in Devinska Nova Ves, a suburb of Bratislava. As it happens, I lived in Bratislava for more than a decade. While there, among other things, I helped build and run a sports and recreation program in Devinska. We built a baseball diamond not far from the main railway station, presumably, my Uncle’s intended targeting point. I knew nothing of Uncle Ed’s attempted mission while living there. And while it’s silly, the fact of it all makes me now feel somehow connected to him—as if I managed to get to where he was trying to go. Of course, and even better, I got to throw baseballs when I got there, not bombs (My guess is Ed would have liked that better too). This anecdote touches on something that mustn’t be missed: Veterans Day reminds us that bombs must sometimes come before baseballs. This is to say, war is sometimes required to make the conditions for peace possible. The good work that was done on that baseball field—the simple joys of kids playing games with strong and healthy bodies in a free and self-determining society and with aspirations for a meaningful future—was purchased at the cost of men like my Uncle Ed being willing to stand and risk everything to resist those who crossed borders without cause in order to subjugate their neighbors.
This isn’t to make a fetish of either war or nation. But it is to acknowledge the realities of human life. Wars are terrible things. But sometimes they are necessary to prevent or end things that are more terrible still. The Christian tradition of just war takes seriously two truths. First, it recognizes, as the beginning of Genesis teaches us, that human beings, made in the image of God, have a responsibility to exercise stewardship, or care—dominion—over all the earth. It also recognizes, second, that dominion in this world will be exercised in light of the reality of human sin. There are some people, and some nations, that have no interest in loving their neighbors but only in dominating them. Therefore, and however lamentable, the just war moral framework insists that there may be times when a political sovereign—that person or body over whom there is no one greater charged with the care of the political community, determines, in the last resort and for the aim of peace, that nothing other than the proportionate and discriminate use of military force will retribute evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or protect the innocent. In such cases, and only such cases, war is required to restore order, justice, and to make possible the conditions for reconciliation.
Veterans Day reminds us that the political conditions necessary for human beings to flourish cannot be had for a trifle. They are secured at a cost—sometimes a very great cost. This cost isn’t merely the physical risks our warfighters take. It includes the moral risks, the spiritual bruising, great and small, that comes from doing terrible things—even if justified and necessary—to our enemy-neighbors. Veterans Day, therefore, also reminds us that while there is nothing glorious about war in and of itself, there is surely something glorious about being a nation composed of men and women who are willing to stand on freedom’s wall, in service of their neighbor and just cause, and to justly fight those wars that are necessary and just to fight.
The Athens Eagles are winning 14-13 against the Siena Rams in an intense volleyball game. Senior Timi Akinyelu executes a flawless jump serve that is received by Miss Knoll in the back row, the ball floats to 9th grader Ella Spraul who sets up junior Linus Salada and he spikes it down right past 7th grader Parker Chason as she dives for the ball. But what is this? Linus Salada calls a net violation on himself; the point goes to Athens! The Eagles continue their volleyball dominance and the entire house erupts in cheers. The school bell rings and all of the students quickly clear out of the gym as they head to 5th period. This fictional scene describes the atmosphere that can be found at Rockbridge’s campus on most Fridays during Conference Time when intramural sports take place. Capture the flag, volleyball, and ultimate frisbee are the fall, winter, and spring intramural sports respectively.
In 2021, Rockbridge Academy introduced a new House System. Every upper school student, 7th-12th grade, and the upper school teachers were assigned one of five houses. The houses are named after cities visited by Rockbridge seniors on Grand Tour. Each house has a symbol and colors taken from 5 of the 17 historic contrade, or districts, of Siena. There is the house of Athens (blue and yellow with an eagle symbol), the house of Rome (black and white with a wolf symbol), the house of Corinth (white and sky blue with a dolphin symbol), the house of Florence (pink and green with a dragon symbol), and the house of Siena (red and yellow with a ram symbol). Once in a house, the student will remain in that house for all of their years at Rockbridge. The houses are evenly divided between the grades and sexes. The House System was primarily designed to encourage and organize service among all of the upper school Rockbridge students. For example, each house is assigned mentoring with the grammar students based on the day of the week.
The Rockbridge house intramurals program was born in November of 2021 when teachers and administrators were discussing how to best use the new 30-minute Conference Time following the upper school lunch period. Now, on almost every Friday starting at noon, four out of the five houses are found competing in various sports. Each sports season consists of 6 weeks of competition. In the sixth week, the two teams with the best records play in a championship competition to determine the Intramurals House Champion. Intramurals give Rockbridge students the opportunity to play sports not already offered in the athletic program.
House Intramurals allow students to engage in physical activity, experience the crucible of self-governed competition, and enjoy the community God has placed them in.
Hours of sitting in a chair, no matter how engaging the subject and the teacher nor how diligent the student, is bound to produce restlessness. God created the human body for movement and when students are able to get away from their desks and participate in physical activity the benefits abound. Exercise reduces stress and increases cognitive function. Exposing students to a variety of sports contributes to the larger goal of developing well-rounded students. While 30 minutes of physical activity in a week is not nearly enough for a healthy upper school student, it fulfills part of the daily recommendation and helps build a positive relationship with physical activity. Volleyball in particular has shown to be a favorite activity among the students which led to a weekly volleyball night over the summer.
House Intramurals are a student-led activity. The students decide who gets to play and who does not, and the students are responsible for following the rules and keeping score. The competition between houses should be spirited, meaning everyone wants their team to win. This combination presents a low-risk but real-life opportunity to practice St. Augustine’s idea of rightly ordered loves. A senior team captain in charge of creating the team lineup may desire to win this game of capture the flag while also desiring to see an enthusiastic yet unathletic 7th grade student get to play. Another student may desire to score the go-ahead point in ultimate frisbee, but she also wants to tell the truth about stepping out of bounds on the catch. None of these interests are wrong, but having the choice to do the one that is more God-honoring is difficult. When a player gets their loves out of order they experience the consequences and hopefully, a teammate is there to encourage them in the truth and wisdom of the Word. This student-led sports competition also provides room for growth in conflict resolution. Conflicts between students have and will continue to bubble up when competing, which opens the door for following the teaching found in Matthew 18. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus lays out a preferential sequence to follow when faced with sin between Christians. First, go to your brother alone and point out their fault, next, bring along a witness or two, and finally, if needed, raise the issue to the Christian leaders. Rockbridge staff members will step in when necessary, but the desire is to see students working through these challenges.
The house system assigns teams within a community which often results in groups of otherwise segregated individuals. Even in a school as small as Rockbridge, an 8th-grade girl might not choose to interact with an 11th-grade boy, but when they score a point together in volleyball they naturally turn and give each other a smiling high five. A student involved in theater that does not normally associate with a basketball player can earn an out together on the kickball field. Even when a teacher rolls up his sleeves and whips a dodgeball across the gym at a student, that teacher begins to create a unique bond with his students. God has brought every Rockbridge student and staff member together in a Christian community. Rockbridge is more than just a school, it is a body of believers living life together. God charges His people to have fellowship with one another, and extracurricular activities are a wonderful way to build relationships and create memories among brothers and sisters in Christ.
In order for house intramurals to have the greatest impact on the culture at Rockbridge Academy, there has to be involvement. Participation from every house member, from 7th-12th grade, boys and girls, students and teachers, athletes and non-athletes is vital! Not every house member will be able to play every week, but they should at least try to play at some point in the school year. Even so, competition on the field is not the sole avenue for student involvement; the cheering section adds to the atmosphere and a lively mascot raises the excitement. Each team needs artistic students to contribute their skills when designing house swag and banners. It comes down to every house member having pride in their house and a desire to see their house rise above the rest, whether in their play, their cheers, or their designs.
Participation in house intramurals is about far more than playing games; it results in character growth, interpersonal skills, camaraderie, and growth in conflict resolution, discretion, and sound judgement.
A culture that plans for, prepares for, and carefully nurtures the principles of faith, family, and freedom over long generations will in the end prevail.
What comes to mind when you think of the Scots? Until recently the cheer “Go Scots!” did not resonate with me. It resonated because of repetition but had little connection to anything deep or meaningful. This was strange considering I spent twelve years in school at Rockbridge Academy and played soccer at the time our mascot was introduced. My desire to understand why the Scots are a fitting Rockbridge mascot was fueled by the realization others were asking the same question. I have coached the middle school girls’ soccer team for two years now, and if the chatter on the sidelines is any indicator, I do not think we know what we mean when we say, “Go Scots!” It does not refer to the Scottish terrier, and it is spelled with one ‘t’ not two. Time and tradition have ingrained the Rockbridge Scots into our collective memory, but if pressed could you give an answer for who the Scots were and why they are a fitting mascot for our school?
When I played soccer for Rockbridge in middle school, we did not have a mascot. “Go Rockbridge!” was our cheer. However, by the time I entered high school, a mascot was bestowed upon us: the Scots. My class, the class of 2011, boasted our very own bagpiper, Rob Schonthaler. He often played his bagpipes at soccer games. This made quite the impression on visiting teams and fueled an initial tidal wave of excitement for our new mascot. Rockbridge was finally like all the other schools…or was it?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mascot is a “person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck or that is used to symbolize a particular event or organization." From the French mascotte, the term was popularized by composer Edmond Audran’s comic operetta, La Mascotte, in 1880, a story in which a household fairy brings good luck to an Italian peasant. However, a mascot should be more than a talisman. I suggest in the context of a Christian school, the mascot should represent a standard to which the school holds. At Rockbridge Academy our standard is Christ. Our aim is to help students see Christ in every subject so they may serve Him wholeheartedly in thought, word, and deed. What is a fitting image for this standard? The Scots, a people captivated by the glories of Christ.
A focus on faith, family, and freedom contributed greatly to the Scots’ success and influence on Western civilization. These characteristics were especially notable between the end of the 5th century through the end of the 8th century AD. The Celtic church was established during this time due to vibrant missionary work. The Scots were few in number and occupied a small geographic area, however their faith in Christ proved to be a solid rock on which their culture flourished. Their faith informed all spheres of life. The church was synonymous with the local gathering place, a center for worship and dialogue on societal matters.
For the Scots, catechism and discipleship were the means by which the younger generations were trained in the faith. The family was the wellspring of society. Families were organized by clan. The clan structure produced fierce loyalty and a sense of belonging. Bagpipe tunes were used strategically as a gathering tool for clan meetings and in battle. Each clan was identified by a unique tune and tartan. In keeping with the Scots’ traditions, Scotland the Brave has always been played at Rockbridge graduation ceremonies. While the song was written in recent years, it harkens back to the gathering tunes of old.
Alongside faith and family, the Scots held freedom in high esteem. The Arbroath Declaration of 1320 was the first legal document of its kind to uphold notions like an individual right to life and liberty, separation of powers, and checks and balances. The United States owes much to the Scots as forerunners in the fight for freedom. A people committed to following God and taking the task of stewarding their time and talents well produced generations of believers whose impact on Western civilization is beyond measure. As Dr. George Grant says in his lecture, Why the Scots?, “a culture that plans for, prepares for, and carefully nurtures the principles of faith, family, and freedom over long generations will in the end prevail.”
The Scots—this is our mascot, our standard. We are a small school, but our hope is to make a worldwide kingdom impact. We are unashamedly Christian, come alongside the family in training their children, and seek to lay a solid educational foundation for future generations. We train our students for greatness.
The Scots—this is our mascot, our standard. We are a small school, but our hope is to make a worldwide kingdom impact. We are unashamedly Christian, come alongside the family in training their children, and seek to lay a solid educational foundation for future generations. We train our students for greatness. Now, when you think of our mascot, I hope you think of the cloud of witnesses, especially those faithful Scottish saints who have gone before us. May the principles of faith, family, and freedom be our tune and our standard as we look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Go Scots!
One year ago, Mr. Northup retired from teaching at Rockbridge Academy after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Mr. Northup greatly impacted my life so when I was given the opportunity to write about his life, I took it. This article is dedicated to Mr. Northup and his family for their 17 years of love and support of Rockbridge Academy.
I know many of us are wondering how he is handling the cancer, but more so why he, of all people, got cancer. Mr. Northup was one of the greatest Bible teachers I (and all of Rockbridge) could have asked for. He displayed his faith in every word and deed, and his love for his students and the subjects he taught was unmatched so, why did Mr. Northup get cancer? This question can be restated in this infamous question: why do bad things happen to good people?
That was my main question for Mr. Northup, and he answered it. Before I reveal exactly what he said, make sure to actively look for the providence of God in Mr. Northup’s life throughout the rest of this article.
Mr. Northup was born in Rhode Island and moved to California a year later. At eight years old in California, he dreamed of becoming a real-life Tarzan but he had two problems preventing him from becoming the rope-swinging monkey-man. For starters, he lived in California, and one cannot be Tarzan when climbable objects are limited to a “cactus and a palm tree in the backyard.” This problem was solved when he moved back to Rhode Island the same year where trees grew as commonly as the California cacti. His other problem was more serious: he needed a Jane, but where to find the perfect girl? He did not need to look far; across the street lived the future Mrs. Northup, Merry Dupre. Mr. Northup said that from a young age he knew he was going to marry her. If she made a great Jane, which she did, then she would make a great wife. Obviously, he convinced the girl across the street that he was worth keeping around as they have been married for 27 years and have had five children.
Mr. Northup’s youth in Rhode Island involved street fights and big older brothers. Our teacher was small for his age but hotheaded. He was known for roughhousing and the kids on his street beat him up multiple times. However, they stopped picking on him after Merry’s brother began looking out for him. Her brother was big and strong with a statement 70s hairstyle, a mohawk.
While Mr. Northup had his fair share of fighting, he also spent a good amount of time in church. He was brought to church as a child, but only began searching for God in his teenage years. He told me that, “Everyone at church had a testimony but I didn’t.” Mr. Northup decided to change that by becoming a rebel until he had a good story to tell.
Mrs. Northup said this time was short lived once they had their first child, Samuel, when he was 17 and a daughter, Nadia, at 18. With two children and little stability, Mr. Northup decided to start bringing the family to church, but he made a mistake and joined, as he called it, a “cult” instead. The church that the Northup family joined preached that one’s salvation depended upon their daily missionary work. One had to share the gospel every day to a random stranger to secure their own salvation. Mr. Northup realized that this teaching did not match his understanding of the Bible from his youth. The dissonance between his understanding of the Bible from childhood and what this church was preaching lit his heart afire for God and truth.
Mr. Northup was hungry and curious to know God’s word, so he sought out the youth pastor from the church he grew up in and began a mentoring relationship with him. To make ends meet he worked as a mechanic until he pursued seminary at age 20. He brazenly decided to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. At first, the college rejected him but that did not stop our teacher. He caught a flight from Rhode Island to Chicago to meet the admissions board face to face. He told them, “I am going to come, but how do I do this?” Seeing the passion of this young teacher changed the hearts of the board. Mr. Northup’s grades were not great, and he was behind in the necessary schooling, but his heart was ready to tackle any obstacle presented to him. The college offered him a deal: he would take night classes until he was ready for full admission into regular daytime classes. Eventually, Mr. Northup worked his way up to those daytime classes and even earned a full ride. During this time, he moved his family out to Chicago and received free housing from a nearby church in exchange for his cleaning services. His living costs were low, so he only had to provide food for his family. Thankfully, the window washing business was booming and he received a job cleaning windows for around $100 an hour.
Here, Mr. and Mrs. Northup had their third child, Josiah. After finishing college with a wife and three kids, he moved back to Rhode Island, desiring to impact children’s lives. He first thought about working at summer camps, but a week or two was too short to create a lasting impact. He then considered becoming a pastor, which he did for three years, but he still wasn’t achieving his goal of teaching children. He decided to change careers once more and become a teacher.
The first and only school Mr. Northup taught at was Rockbridge Academy. When deciding where to teach, Mr. Northup and his wife asked the question, “Who do we want our kids to be?” They came upon this one, strange way of teaching called classical Christian Education. They fell in love with the idea of teaching children with a focus on the liberal arts but centered around Christ. Mr. Northup told me concerning classical Christian Education, “This is the way Christians ought to be training their kids.” The Northups found a classical Christian school called Rockbridge Academy which they thought embodied the classical Christian spirit and teaching they desired for their kids. Mr. Northup applied to work here and hit it off with the school board, landing the job for a Bible teacher. He served at Rockbridge for a total of 17 years and during this time, had two more children, Luke and Emma. I asked him which Bible class he enjoyed teaching the most and he answered, “Christ in the Old Testament . . . We get to explore the question ‘where specifically is Christ?’”
Sadly, as we all know, Mr. Northup has left Rockbridge and pursued treatment for his cancer. He said that in these hard times, his wife, Merry Northup, has been his continuous rock and constant companion, a true helper. He is also very grateful for the time he can now spend with his immediate family and his three grandsons. God’s providence, which has shown itself time and time again, is clearly woven throughout Mr. Northup’s life. God has provided in countless ways from protection in his youth to free housing in college and ultimately a job at Rockbridge Academy. To end this story, I want to provide you with Mr. Northup’s answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He said, “This sounds cheap, but I don't think that people are good; I think that God alone is good and He's gracious. I don't expect that I should get things because I'm good or because I'm not. He is. That's one part. The rest is grace. He's been gracious to me with everything from my family to provision. I don't expect that I should be taken care of. Everything is grace. I am grateful for the provision of my family. I can't do anything more than simply be grateful. I don't know if that's the right way to think about it, but that's what I think.”
Hannah Bates is currently in 11th grade and a member of the Rockbridge Review (student-run school newspaper) editorial team.
In a previous article, I argued that we should not really have a problem reading hard books. That, “it is hard” is not a fit excuse to avoid it; in fact, the very labor, by strengthening the mind, makes us more fit to read, absorb, and love harder and even greater books, most especially the Word of God.
I wanted to address one other word in the question, though: the word “we.”
Why do we read hard books?
Again, I, too, struggled with Milton, failing three times to get beyond book 2 of the epic. Yet, as I said before, I was largely responsible for pushing to re-introduce Paradise Lost into the freshman curriculum, and that losing the chance to read and re-read that book with Rockbridge students was the great regret of an otherwise wonderful load-lightening which preserved my sanity.
What I did not do was discuss how my attitude changed.
It has to do with “we”.
In the summer of 2008, I was blessed to be in my third year at St. John’s College. Each summer, we would choose a preceptorial—a set of readings and discussions that dove deeper into a particular work than the other courses had time to. Paradise Lost was one of the preceptorial options, and my intention was to avoid it, but my colleague Brad Finkbeiner persuaded me to take it with him.
Eight weeks later, I was hooked. What happened?
The classical methodology happened. We would read one book at a time, independently; our only requirement was that we come back to class equipped with a question we had about the text. (That part was not hard; I had lots of those.) Class began by presenting those questions, the best of which became apparent by how well they drove us into discussing the text, flipping back and forth from one page of the poem to another, comparing lines, trying to understand how a nuance, here, shaped the bigger picture. These were not debates—though sometimes if someone was demonstrably wrong a brief debate might flare up—so much as explorations: explorations of something that was great and good and, yes, hard.
Part of my mistake in reading Paradise Lost the first time was simply that I did not have the intellectual equipment to read it alone: I needed a guide, and I needed companions. Our tutor, Mr. May, was a true guide: more than a referee, much, much less than a lecturer. He fostered discussion that focused on Truth of the text and which demanded that we read more and more closely, discuss more and more carefully, listen to the other students around the table with a more gracious but still critical ear.
The “we” of dialectic happened.
It is that revolving pattern–the lone reader puzzling out the text at midnight (rocking my infant son to sleep), then coming together around a table at which we all sat puzzling about Milton—that pattern is the one that made the hard book not less hard, but less heavy.
Many hands make light work. In this case, many eyes made the work light—what had been dark, I could begin to see...
♦ the beautiful intricacies of Milton’s poetics, poetics that weighed each syllable and how it carried his point…
♦ the goodness of characters like the angel Abdiel, adamant, the lone rebel against a rebellious Satan, “Among the faithless, faithful only hee;/ Among innumerable false, unmoved…”
♦ the Truth as Milton—broken, blind, outcast—could see it: that an infinite God of infinite goodness must overwhelm the evil that seems, in the moment, to overwhelm us…
And that has been the delightful pattern of the last four years: four additional passes through Milton with Mrs. Ward and with these students, some of whom have brains that bend to literature with natural ease, some of whom struggle—but we grow and grow strong. The most powerful insights are not solely or even primarily from the so-called “A” students: they have come, consistently, from those students willing to lean in, to try to figure out what Milton means, what his words mean—not just passively sit and hope I will tell them. They are those with the courage to engage, to test something in conversation, and forgive others when we say dumb things… as I often have. And will let me cull out their mistakes, too, because it is the Truth we are after.
We need each other, more than ever. We need the student in the classroom, the teacher puzzling through this, because we want to know the truth, to live out the goodness, to revel in the beauty.
We need each other as we walk through God’s Word, a Word of more genius than any other—and of more difficulty…. And of more worth. We need the body to help us understand this Word, and then to live it—but not alone.
Ultimately, we need Him: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to, as Milton says,
“…What in me is dark/
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
and justify the ways of God to men.”
We need Him in order to take a simple Gospel woven throughout a hard book and share it with a dying, desperate world.
And that is why we—together—read hard books.
Paradise Lost. The first three times that I attempted to read this book on my own, I failed, never making it out of book 2. I was a literature teacher with several years of experience and at the beginning of my happy career at Rockbridge on my third failed attempt.
It’s a hard book. It’s a hard book, and Milton’s classical allusions, Latinate constructions, and theological asides were completely overwhelming to me, so I quit. I remember waiting at Annapolis Honda for my Civic’s oil change, trying to make sense of the thing. I finally abandoned the poem and comforted myself by asserting that “the Emperor has no clothes”: nothing that was this hard to slog through could be worth it.
It is largely my fault that Paradise Lost is in our present 9th grade curriculum; I made my case to Ralph Janikowski and Mike McKenna in 2010, worked to maneuver Pilgrim’s Progress into the 8th grade curriculum to make room for Milton, and then, in the fall of 2011… My class load was reduced, I stopped teaching freshman literature, and I did not have the chance to teach the book for the next seven years. My deepest regret about that? Not having a chance to read Milton’s epic with Rockbridge students again.
Because it was a hard book, and it was worth it.
So let me address the question above: Why do we read hard books?
I freely acknowledge that, for their age and relative maturity, Paradise Lost is the hardest book in our curriculum for the students tasked with reading it… and then writing about it. I also acknowledge that, as I defend it, I am doing so from a place of sympathy: I know that it is hard, since I abandoned it several times myself.
Allow me first to challenge the assumption behind the question: “hard” is not the problem.
One of my favorite lines from A Tale of Two Cities describes Charles Darnay’s condition in London. The child of French aristocrats, he abandons their life and the wealth that came with it, moves to London under an assumed name, and is now making his way as a tutor. Dickens writes, “He had expected labour, and he had found it, and did it, and made the best of it. In this, his prosperity consisted.” As anyone who has read the book would know, the life of Darnay – with its labor, with its lower middle class trappings – is infinitely more rich than that of the aristocrats he left behind, at their ease but succumbing to their “leprosy of unreality.”
He chose a harder life not because it was hard, but because it was good.
And Paradise Lost, I will consistently argue, is good. Hard, but good.
In fact, looked at the right way, “hard” is just another way of acknowledging that the task involves cost: time, effort, the restructuring of the mind to grasp what is going on.
Thus, calling something “hard” is not so strongly negative as it first appears. In fact, looked at the right way, “hard” is just another way of acknowledging that the task involves cost: time, effort, the restructuring of the mind to grasp what is going on.
(An aside: what is the greatest benefit of math for any student? That it restructures the mind to think in a more organized, balanced, direct fashion. The constant query of, “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” thus entirely misses the point. In a very particular way, it does not matter if you ever use the quadratic equation again in your life; what you have gained is an ever-deepening ability to think clearly and appreciate something beautiful.)
Video games, which take us where we want to go anyway, are easy, and they alter the mind just as surely as potato chips alter my waistline. Healthy alteration of the mind is hard – as is the alteration of a pot-belly into abs of steel. The better abs, though, are not just useful for attracting a mate; they are actually a by-product of something that is just better for living: a healthy, fit body.
And struggling through math or Milton – leaning into the labor of it – can help to bring about that which is even more useful: a healthy, fit mind.
But people with abs of steel can be insufferably vain: this is true (I say this as a distinctly pot-bellied man). Is the goal of reading a hard book being able to look good because of my heightened mental acuity, just in time for next fall’s academic season? Of course not; the goal is to be able to get at the Truth, the goodness, the beauty that these works contain.
Greater minds than mine have defended the hard books of our curriculum for the goodness, beauty, and Truth found in them. I will add nothing to that here. I will confess that sometimes the complaint that “these books are too hard” arises because these books confront us with our own feebleness in the presence of something great (I write this as a confession of my own sins), and we have developed a society that tears down that which is great. Instead, we should see that, like a good, hard practice under the hot, August sun, the hard book prepares us for that which is even greater, for understanding and thinking more deeply, for going “further up and further in”.
Because the Bible, too, is a hard book, and we abandon the reading of it at our peril.
Instead, we should see that, like a good, hard practice under the hot, August sun, the hard book prepares us for that which is even greater, for understanding and thinking more deeply, for going “further up and further in”.