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David Misner’s classroom at VFW Post 2618 in Brookhaven, Miss., looks like a typical homeschool co-op. An American flag hangs in the corner, and tidy rows of metal folding chairs line up four to a table. Moms stand along the back wall. A seventh-grader digs through a dazzling backpack in search of a pencil.
The words on the whiteboard—post tenebras lux—aren’t par for the course, though, at least not most semesters. Believing this year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation warranted something special, the co-op’s organizers hired Misner, a seminary graduate with an affinity for church history, to bring Martin Luther to life. And to explain Latin phrases.
“After darkness, light,” he calls out, and students hurry to scribble the definition in three-ring binders. It lands somewhere next to notes they’ve taken about big words like sacerdotalism and even bigger questions: How did Germany’s culture produce both a Luther and a Hitler? Are the five solas at risk today?
The Brookhaven co-op is one of many educational settings across the country expanding this year’s teaching to mark the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Christian schools focus on the spiritual and theological implications, while teachers in secular environments emphasize societal impacts. The challenge for educators who wish to mark the true significance of 500 years of sola fide? Finding ways to communicate both.
In the VFW’s makeshift classroom, Misner has introduced Roland Bainton’s classic Here I Stand to a new generation and presented papal bulls to Baptists and Pentecostals. “If students grasp the lessons of the Reformation, they’ll be better equipped to face today’s culture,” he said.
Here are four ways schools are teaching and have taught about the Reformation, from four different areas of the United States.
- In the Northwest, students at the Ambrose School just outside Boise, Idaho, are surrounded by the Reformation. From parapets to heavy beams and coffering, Tudor architecture typical of the 16th century dominates the school’s 67,000-square-foot facility. During the 2017-18 school year their hymns of the month will focus on Luther’s works. Some are more widely known (October’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) than others (January’s “These Are the Holy Ten Commands”). Headmaster Kirk Vander Leest said many students know about Luther’s 95 Theses, “but the extent and breadth of his hymns are largely forgotten.”
- In the Southwest, music also provided a Reformation teaching tool for Jason Harney, choral director at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, Calif. When he learned about Music Celebrations International’s proposed choir tour of Germany, Harney jumped at the chance. “For a Protestant, a trip to Wittenberg is like an American going to Washington, D.C.,” he said. Harney went with 25 Aliso Niguel students along with members of Red Hill Lutheran Church in Tustin, where Harney serves as director of music: They formed the trip’s touring choir.
- Coming back east of the Mississippi to Cincinnati, festivalgoers at Faith Bible Church’s annual Reformation celebration on Oct. 27 will see Samuel Carr, a local acting instructor, playing Luther himself. Two years ago Carr and his Dominion Players portrayed a dialogue between Luther and his wife, Katie, premarriage: He helped her escape from a nunnery. For audience members Cheri Barnes and her five daughters, the presentation was pivotal. The homeschool mom says before she and her daughters went, she had only “a vague idea that Luther had rebelled in some way.”
- In the Southeast, REF500 Conference organizers at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., challenged high-school artists to go beyond basic facts and explore the Reformation’s influence on Western civilization. Jenna Fergus, an art instructor at Briarcrest Christian School in nearby Memphis, required students in her AP art class to complete 10 pages of Reformation research in their visual journals, a process that culminated in several prize-winning works, including senior Allison Szulewski’s best-of-show A Hopeful Self Reform. She used watercolors to symbolize the effects of the Reformation on common man—what she describes as “a washing away of the past forms of church communication and knowledge hierarchy.” Other renderings featured 95 sticky notes of personal reforms and a split portrait of Luther and Pope Leo X.