Matt Bianco and I were making an ANI chart the other day, on reasons to read the classics. This was in response to some quandaries people have raised about Leigh’s use of the Sanskrit word, mandala, in her new academic endeavor, the Mandala Fellowship. This link will allow you to read an article about why CC would use such a “pagan” word, and what the mathematical pattern of the mandala means for a Christian.
As far as reading secular and pagan classics (something which we at Classical Conversations are often asked to defend), the most intriguing reason we came up with was that the benefit of reading is primarily formative, not informative. In other words, reading is not primarily a vehicle for putting ideas into your head; it actually forms you as a person even more than it informs you with facts.
The difference is this. If you adopt the view that books are primarily for information, then clearly, Christian books have good information about life, the universe, and everything, and non-Christian books have bad information and you should read the former and avoid the latter. But if you adopt the view that books form you, then you will see good books as being those that form you into a good thinker and poor books as being those that form you into a poor thinker. Adopting this view makes everything harder, since not all Christian books are good, and not all pagan books are bad. This is harder because when books are not tagged as good or bad, we must resort to discernment, and because the good books are usually hard to read.
We see this clearly in salvation. A Christian is saved (and, subsequently, grows) by being formed into a new person by the Lord—whether or not he is yet very informed about the finer points of the Bible. Reading scripture does not transform us with the ideas it teaches, per se. Rather, the God behind the scripture transforms us so that we can grasp the ideas. He does this by words and ideas, certainly, but the power of those words is formative and transformative power, not power gained by the information they contain. An atheist can read scripture as information.
We suggest that formation does something that information cannot do on its own and that formation happens through the things we choose to do and the books we choose to read, whether they are fiction, nonfiction, Christian, or non-Christian. Everything forms you, for better or worse. This idea has captivated me ever since Matt and I began talking about it, so I wanted to share some musings about viewing everyday activities in terms of formation rather than information.
If we view church in terms of information, then we see the sermon as being the most valuable part of church. However, if we view it in terms of formation, then there are many other parts of the morning that benefit us just as much as the sermon:
- Rising early on our “day off,”
- Taking the time to dress in nice clothes,
- Singing beautiful music,
- Hearing beautiful music,
- Sitting still in the presence of God,
- Sharing bread and wine with other believers, and
- Conversations before and after the worship service.
When we view church as primarily a formative experience, listening to a sermon is still a way to gain knowledge about God. But the entire experience of a morning at church becomes something that conforms us to God. Every moment is an enactment of some part of Christian life—acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness, giving of our substance to God, fellowship with the brethren—so that we are formed to be better at these things during the week.
And let’s face it, when we see church as being information only, it is usually information that is difficult to apply in the rest of life.
If we view school as primarily a place of information, then we will feed students facts. This is the principle that founded the public school system and we have seen the results. If we view it as a place of formation, we will teach them what to do with the facts.
Do not misunderstand me; school is indeed a place where information is used to form students. I am only suggesting that it should be treated as secondary to formation, as a means is to an end. If a lesson must be abandoned in order to have a deep conversation with a parent or tutor, the goal of formation has still been served.
Even within the classical education movement, we are always at risk of thinking of school as primarily informative. Students ask how they shall “use” Latin, when they should realize that Latin is not something to be used at all. Rather, learning it shall make them into a smarter, better sort of people.
While few people would claim that comedy is particularly informative, they usually assume it is not having any formative effect on them either. However, we are all familiar with the phenomenon of showing a particular show or comedian to a friend, who finds it less amusing. This is because humor takes getting used to—another way of saying “formation.”
If comedy forms us, we should bear in mind that there are some things that should be laughed at and some that should not. Watching any kind of comedy forms us more and more into the sort of person who laughs at that kind of joke. What we may not be realizing is that some comedy forms us into people who laugh at things we should not and that this affects our entire outlook on life.
In my experience, informational talk is usually “small” talk—telling someone you just met about something that happened or filling in a friend on the TV show he missed last night. Information is safe to talk about because it reveals little about you. Formational conversations are the ones that keep us up until three a.m. learning about each other, learning from each other, and becoming more like each other in what are, hopefully, the best ways.
In our case, this consists of trying to arrive at an understanding of what beauty is or just reveling in the beauty of a well-loved book. We propose ideas and counter ideas, literally forming knowledge we did not have before.
But in friendships where this is not the preferred style of discourse, the same kind of thing is going on. The real formative power of conversations is the power to transform the people having them.
The information Matt and I have exchanged is quickly forgotten, but we are both better men for having exchanged it.