A Little Child Shall Lead Them,by Johann Christoph Arnold (Plough/Intervarsity, 193 pp.; $9.99, paper);

Raising Them Right: A Saint's Advice on Raising Children,by Theophan the Recluse (Conciliar Press, rev. ed., 71 pp.; $5.95, paper). Reviewed by Gregory Mathewes-Green, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and pastor of Holy Cross Mission, Baltimore.

It is difficult not to envy the Bruderhof community. We rarely meet Christians with such dedication to their common life that they won't serve the Lord's Supper if any two members are not in spiritual harmony. Folks like that are just plain admirable, and in some ways a judgment on all the rest of us. And the wonderfully sturdy children's toys that come out of the Bruderhof shop are the envy of every parent who has attempted to cobble together wooden playthings for the kids. Then there is the Bruderhof's simple Christian lifestyle, a concept the rest of us have been talking about for at least a quarter of a century; while we have been yakking, they have been doing it.

So why is this book by a certified Bruderhof leader so disappointing? A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Thoughts on Children and Education, by Johann Christoph Arnold, elder, counselor, father, and grandfather, is a personal reflection that, while serving up some very moving stories and thoughtful insights, nevertheless remains fundamentally flawed. Early in the book Arnold builds on Bonhoeffer's "Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell" and briefly states the case for a Christ-centered, two-parent family in which prayer is the sustaining force for living the biblical family life. It is within this kind of family that strong and Christian children will grow up, and where the husband and father will demonstrate the firm love of God. Good stuff as far as it goes.

But why not draw the parallel to God the Father, "from Whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named"? Christian dads know how to be real fathers because of the Father revealed in the stories of the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments he is seen to be strong, reliable, trustworthy, and loving. He, like many of the pagan gods, "begets" children, though spiritually rather than materially. But unlike many of the gods in the pagan stories, the biblical God sticks around to love, lead, and discipline his children. Thus, he teaches all of us earthly fathers something fundamentally important about duty and responsibility as well. In short, more emphasis on the meaning of the Fatherhood of the First Person of the Trinity for family relations, and commentary on its implications, would add a distinctly scriptural view to the dad's role.

Article continues below

Stories form the most effective part of this book. In two sections titled "When Children Suffer" and "The Special Child," Arnold presents in simple, straightforward language the troubling, yet deeply meaningful, lives of some very unfortunate children. Told mostly by the parents, these stories argue strongly against that adjective unfortunate, because even in their pain, these children are so clearly bearers of God's strange grace to those who, even in their own pain, love them.

It seems unfair to criticize a book that conveys such beautiful and hauntingly true pictures of what life is like for some among us. But the overwhelming image of childhood presented here is straight from the sketchbook of Rousseau. Though mixed with brief and seemingly obligatory talk of sin and the need for discipline, the overall impression is that children probably won't need it, because they are so good. Original sin is acknowledged, but not presented as the powerful force that it is.

This romanticizing of children and childhood obscures the true nature of youth (with its distortions of God's image as well as its own distinctive beauty) and distorts the nature of the parent-child relationship. Arnold quotes approvingly from a poem:

child, though I am meant to teach you much,
what is it, in the end,
except that together we are
meant to be children
of the same Father
and I must unlearn
all the adult structure
and the cumbering years
and you must teach me
to look at the earth and the heaven
with your fresh wonder.

There is certainly a degree of truth there. Not all "adult structure" is constructive; some may be evil. Adults can learn from children in many delightful ways. But the chief principles here have to do with a leveling, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical view of social, even presumably family, relations. As "children of the same Father," spiritual equality and brotherhood is a given; but surely within the biblical dispensation, critical role distinctions are demarked. These father/child, mother/child, and husband/wife distinctions are secured for our sanctification, not from any arbitrariness or mean-spiritedness, to use the most popular epithet of the decade, on the part of the Almighty, who is, after all, "Our Father in heaven."

From a different time and a very different place comes the tonic we've been looking for. Theophan, called the Recluse, was a Russian bishop and monk of the nineteenth century. Raising Them Right: A Saint's Advice on Raising Children is excerpted from Theophan's much longer volume, The Path to Salvation. Having served a spell as a diocesan bishop, Theophan chose to live out the remainder of his life as a hermit, though in a remarkable fashion. Indeed, he was deeply involved in others' lives, being a spiritual father to many by mail and counseling the numbers of people who visited him.

Article continues below

Not all the recommendations of this Russian monk will find an agreeable hearing, but many will. Because he speaks from a continuous theological tradition rooted in the Bible and the church fathers, he works from a basic biblical anthropology, and it is on this ground, reinforced by his own experience with men, women, and children, that he gives advice to parents. For Theophan, it is clearly the responsibility of parents to raise their children not only as Christians, but as holy Christians. In Theophan's view, it is holiness for their children, and nothing less, that is the aim of the parental vocation. This means training children to engage in the great and lifelong internal battle against the flesh and giving them the skills to fight the powers of darkness.

The assumption here is that children, like their older human counterparts, are indeed made in the image of God, but also that this image—as historic Christianity has always taught—is seriously distorted by sin. The result is a propensity toward selfishness. So the Christian, writes Theophan, "must dispose his faculties for something for which they have no inclination." It is the obligation of Christian parents to ensure that the battle ("labor, intense and sorrowful") against sin and for holiness is joined.

In a chapter titled "Understanding a Young Person," Theophan writes convincingly about what he calls the "shock waves of youth," describing two tendencies, which we would call the thirst for experience and peer pressure. The parent is called on to shape the life of the young person so that both are controlled. "Those youths that are not allowed to arrange their own conduct until they reach the age of adulthood, one can call happy," says the Recluse. Theophan sees no substitute for formation—spiritual, moral, and emotional.

Where readers might falter in listening to Theophan—perhaps even those who agree with his anthropological premises—is over what we might today call issues of style, not substance. Sometimes Theophan can seem unduly harsh. But while some might recoil from a nineteenth-century Russian monk's lack of sentiment, others, given our current cultural obsesssion with the false gods of self-esteem and individual expressivism, will find it bracing.

Article continues below

Short Notices
The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship
By George M. Marsden
Oxford University Press
142 pp.; $22

George Marsden's The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (CT, Aug. 15, 1994, p. 33) chronicled the astonishing transformation in American higher education from its Christian origins to the militant secularism of the late twentieth century. In a "Concluding Unscientific Postscript," Marsden exposed the "incoherence of … widely current ideas concerning the meaning of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity" in academia. A genuine pluralism, Marsden noted, would not discriminate against religious perspectives.

In his new book, Marsden continues and broadens the argument. After an opening chapter that explains "Why Christian Perspectives Are Not Wanted," he makes a powerful case for explicitly Christian scholarship not only in the context of Christian institutions but in the academy at large.

Marsden concludes with "Getting Specific: A Readable Appendix" in which he gives examples of first-rate Christian scholarship, including work in progress as well as published books and articles.

For all those who take seriously the command to "love the Lord your God … with all your mind," Marsden's book is essential reading.

Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today International/Christianity Today Magazine.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.