Book Review: “Save Them From Secularism”

I mentioned in a recent post that an idea called the ‘moral imagination’ would begin to come up repeatedly on this blog. Here is the first of many times you will see it appear.

In his book, Save Them From Secularism: Pre-Evangelism for Your Children, David DeBruyn, a South-African pastor who writes for the excellent conservative blog, Religious Affections Ministries, makes a strong case that a child’s moral imagination is crucial in the battle for their soul. DeBruyn’s book is not a how-to on evangelizing your children. Rather, he focuses on the importance of the child’s moral imagination, or ‘worldview,’ and the effect that that interpretive grid will have on how the child interprets (and embraces or denies) the facts of the gospel.

The book essentially answers the question: how do I best prepare my children to be good soil for the gospel? To be clear, DeBruyn is not offering a silver bullet for seeing children trust Christ for salvation. However, he points out that God ordinarily uses means in the process of drawing children to faith. The moral imagination is a crucial piece of the puzzle. DeBruyn believes that a significant reason many children grow up in Christian homes and yet jettison the faith upon adulthood is not that they don’t understand the Gospel, but that they don’t feel rightly about it. The problem is not that they haven’t been taught to know the facts of the Gospel, but that they haven’t been trained to love it (and the One who provided it). Therefore, the inputs into a child’s moral imagination (grid/worldview) are of vital importance – as important as the doctrines taught – because this powerful tool of affection predisposes the child to acceptance or rejection of the facts.

As DeBruyn summarizes, “This is not another book on how to preach the gospel to your children. It is a book about how to prepare them for the gospel. It’s a book about shaping their attitude towards the gospel.”

He then offers eight categories that parents should wisely employ to shape their child’s imagination.

Parental Piety
This most obvious category is necessitated by the words of God in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The “Greatest Commandment,” to love the Lord our God with our whole being, is immediately followed by a commensurate action: to teach children to do the same. DeBruyn points out, “Probably one of the first analogies the child’s imagination receives is the analogy of his parents’ piety. This provides him with a picture of what it is like to be in a relationship with God.” Soberingly, this picture can be more or less accurate and it will certainly have an affect on a child’s perception (imagination) of the underlying reality.

Family Roles
“Once again, children will learn not just that they are commanded to love God, but that loving God is good. They learn, if a relationship with Christ is like their parents’ marriage, then loving God is desirable. If God cares for them like their mother, then it is safe trusting God wholeheartedly. If God is as just and strict as their parents, then they need their sins forgiven. If God is a Father like their father, then they owe him deep and joyful respect.”

Routines
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. | Deut 6:7

“God’s words suggest the rhythm and routine of life . . . . Not only are you to teach about loving God routinely, but your routine itself communicates something. Your daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly routine teaches your family about ultimate dependence, ultimate devotion, and ultimate love.”

In one of his many practical suggestions throughout the book, DeBruyn paints a healthy view (‘imagination’) of provision in this routine: “What is the habit around mealtimes, particularly dinnertime? Who is honoured for providing – which is, after all, why Dad was out all day – working hard so that God would be pleased to bless the home with provision. What is discussed at the table?” Near the end of the chapter, DeBruyn gives the bottom line on routines, “Routines say, this is important. This is necessary. This is essential. Routines are a picture of what the cycles of life revolve around.”

Rituals
If routines are the broad, over-arching category that mark our day-to-day lives, a ritual (or, ceremony) is “an event which carries special meaning, performed on a special occasion.” DeBruyn gives weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, and inaugurations as examples of rituals familiar to us. God used rituals in the life of ancient Israel to help them “see the difference between worship and selfishness, between a life lived only for things under the sun, and a life lived with a perspective of things above the sun. To put it in modern language, God was rescuing the Israelite from practical atheism, from what we would call practical secularism. By clothing life in all kinds of symbols, God was frequently reminding and teaching them He was the ultimate reality.”

Well and good, but why would we create rituals for our children today? DeBruyn answers simply and convincingly from Ex 12:24-7, “Notice that God predicts that the ceremony will provoke a question from the child. That’s the idea. Any well-planned ceremony has all kinds of symbols and procedures and manners which have meaning. It’s the joy of children to observe and wonder, and the joy of parents to explain.” Thoughtfully constructed rituals give parents the opportunity to both teach the child didactically and touch his imagination at the same time.

Some may be concerned with the idea of rituals in NT Christian life, perhaps thinking that that sort of thing belongs only in the OT and ancient Israel. DeBruyn replies:

Not true. What is baptism, but a ceremony, a ritual, in which we use a symbol to convey a deep, transcendent meaning? What is the Lord’s Supper except a ritual, a ceremony, in which we use various symbols to convey special meaning? In fact, every Sunday worship service is a ceremony, in which we read the Scriptures, pray the Scriptures, sing the Scriptures and preach the Scriptures. Properly done, this ceremony will deeply shape the imaginations of children who have yet to grasp the realities of the gospel.

God is not against ceremony or ritual. He is against ceremony and ritual that points only to itself. He is against ceremony with evaporated meaning, performed by loveless, disobedient hearts. He is against ceremony which is unbiblical or promotes a false gospel. He is against additions or subtractions from prescribed worship.

DeBruyn gives several practical ideas for rituals that we should incorporate into our own lives, starting with the most obvious one that he already mentioned above, corporate worship. He adds family worship, traditions built around Christian holidays, and ceremonies built around significant family milestones such as birthdays, graduation, pledges of purity, and engagement.

Manners
In a culture where children are worshipped as the kings and queens of the home and allowed to run roughshod over ancient prescriptions and conventions (like manners), DeBruyn’s defense of order is most welcomed. DeBruyn says that secularism itself demands such chaos. The two are intimately connected. So, by instilling manners, parents fight secularism in at least three ways:

First, manners distinguish station, rank, office, status, age, and gender. Manners treat ladies as ladies, adults as adults, the elderly as the elderly, magistrates as magistrates, and so forth.

Second, manners clothe life with spiritual meaning. They distinguish us from mere animals and demonstrate the transcendent nature of our existence. Manners turn meals into something more than sustenance, sex into more than mating, clothing into something more than covering, speech into more than advanced grunting.

Third, by making these distinctions, and filling person, place, and thing  with spiritual meaning, we are making value judgements. Christians believe there is a transcendent order, which filters down into a scale of values: some people or things deserve a certain kind of treatment.

Of special note was the fact that DeBruyn uses passages such as Ex 20:12; Lev 19:3, 32; Deut 28:49-50; and Prov 30:17 to make the case that ultimately manners can lead to the fear of the LORD (and vice versa). This was new thought for me.

Art

When it comes to shaping a child’s imagination – that part of him that will make sense of ultimate reality – little is more crucial than the arts. Music, poetry, literature, the plastic arts and theatre reach the imagination directly and shape it profoundly.

Unfortunately, many Christian parents have a concept of the arts that is profoundly secular. First, the arts are viewed primarily as entertainment, or as forms of distraction . . . . With this view, the most some Christian parents will do is to ensure that the forms of distraction do not contain nudity, profanity, or excessive violence.

Second, the arts are seen as badges of refinement. Playing an instrument, reading the classics, and reciting good poetry, are signs that the child is ‘cultured’, and give many a parent the warm feeling of self-congratulation. These two ideas about the arts emerge from a thoroughly secular worldview, where the arts contain no serious meaning in themselves, with no power to shape the understanding.

After stating these incorrect views on art above, DeBruyn goes on to contrast them with an authentic Christian worldview. But you’ll have to buy the book to read them.

This is sure to be viewed by many readers as the most controversial chapter in the book. Most likely this will not result from a well-made opposing argument but because the content will be brand new (and at times shocking). I admit, I am only just beginning to think in the categories that DeBruyn is outlining and I have much to chew on and think through. I do not yet understand much. However, in full disclosure, I find myself leaning towards DeBruyn’s way of thinking (which is also represented by several other godly men that I trust and admire) strongly enough that I am already trying to think of ways to apply this in my home even while I pursue a deeper understanding of the philosophy.

The Christian Tradition
The basic argument here is that, while introducing our children to great works of imaginative literature and art is a noble cause, our efforts will not be as meaningful if these works are introduced in isolation. Rather, we ought to introduce our children to these works interpreted through the rich stream of Christian tradition. “We must understand them as parts of a long conversation, as parts of a Christian culture.” With the embarrassing ignorance of Christian history in most churches, this will not be an easy task. Most parents will have to educate themselves even as they bring their children along. But the hard work is well worth it. As DeBruyn points out:

In teaching this history, we are teaching more than names and dates. We are teaching the progress of doctrine, the formation of metaphors, the meaning of the analogies that became the shared information of Christian culture. More importantly, these metaphors and analogies became the shared sentiment towards the things of God, the shared affections toward the worship of God. Put simply, our children must become literate in the culture that Christianity developed, if they are to be properly shaped by works of the Christian imagination.

Language, Thinking and Christian Education
Here DeBruyn underscores the importance of a good education. A child is not going to be a good thinker if they have poor language skills. As he puts it,

What happens to the soul whose technology of thought is broken with flawed grammar and a skeletal vocabulary? His range of ideas is immediately limited. His potential to weigh, discriminate, judge, contrast, and make the kind of fine distinctions necessary to wisdom is greatly diminished. His disordered language reflects disordered ideas, and disordered ideas do not represent the orderly universe God made.

If we wish our children to embrace the reality of God according to Scripture, we must prepare them to do so with careful attention to language. Not only do we want them to be competent readers of Scripture, we want them to be competent thinkers.

If you want to hear DeBruyn’s thoughts on what a sound Christian education looks like, I’d encourage you to buy the book. I’ll give you a hint: it’s about far more than preparing a child to make widgets in a factory (my analogy, not David’s….I know it’s fifty years late but I like it and I’m going to keep using it).

Conclusion
DeBruyn’s remarks throughout this book resonate with the historic Christian faith and with the historic philosophical position known as ‘conservatism’ (a word that, unfortunately, has been bastardized beyond recognition in today’s world). His work is seasoned with references to excellent resources that serve as a gold mine for proper worldview formation, and one of his three appendixes summarizes many of these. Another appendix humorously gives “Ten Ways to Raise a Secularist” – humorous, that is, until flickers of recognition dart across the mind’s eye. His final appendix warns against the ‘god of fun’ that most Western churches have constructed.

Save Them From Secularism is an inexpensive read that is barely 100 pages and can be covered in a day. I am not saying it is facile or easily implemented; to be sure, I need to go back and re-read and chew much more on it. And I would do well to keep it handy as a reference book over the next several years. What I am saying is that it serves as an excellent, non-intimidating introduction to the idea of shaping a child’s moral imagination (and for most of us, re-shaping our own) – for if we don’t, someone else will. I enthusiastically recommend it.