“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” - J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring
Recently I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Phil Ryken speak about the threefold office of Christ as seen in The Lord of the Rings (specifically in the character of Gandalf) and I jumped at the chance. Not only is Dr. Ryken is the President of Wheaton College (my alma mater), an accomplished author and scholar, but he is also the son of one of my favorite professors and most influential academic forces in my life, Dr. Leland Ryken. The elder Dr. Ryken was an English Professor at Wheaton for over 4 decades, and one of the most important advocates for studying the Bible as literature, among many other contributions to scholarly literature.
I took each class I could with Dr. Ryken, starting with a Shakespeare course, and concluding with him leading my summer semester in England in 2006. I wrote seemingly countless papers for him, learned to read scripture in a new light, and gained an appreciation for the wider cannon of Shakespeare under his instruction. However, what sticks with me most from my time with him is not the work I submitted, but his method of motivating me to do it. When I walked in for my first class with Dr. Ryken, I thought he was distant and perhaps a bit austere. He was direct, concise, and while not unkind, he was nowhere in sight of warm and fuzzy either. I soon learned though, that my initial impression could not be farther from the truth. Dr. Ryken cared deeply about his students, and he worked unrelentingly to ensure his classes were excellent, and to connect with his students, even if they didn’t realize it right away.
As I said, Dr. Leland Ryken was not big on praise, but this was by design. As his student, I enjoyed his classes, tried to match his wit, and went to office hours somewhat frequently, but I rarely received praise. Predictably, I doubled-down on my efforts to explicate Milton’s sonnets, to find a novel reading of a psalm, or to write a pristine essay examining The Winter’s Tale. In so doing, I became a better writer, a better reader, and a more critical thinker, even if it took me longer than it should have to realize that I was responding just as he had hoped his students would. At the top of my final paper for him, he wrote me a thoughtful and concise note, and in it, he offered significant, non-academic praise. I’ll keep that paper until the day I die.
Forgive me for the longer intro, but if you’ll indulge me and keep reading, now comes the time where we tie this back to Dr. Ryken the younger, and his lecture on LOTR. In his talk on Gandalf and his representation of the threefold office of Christ, Dr. Phil Ryken touched on the theme of Gandalf as prophet, and one shared characteristic he highlighted has stuck with me since the lecture. To quote Dr. (Phil) Ryken, “Gandalf is most influential in his words and truth [not in his actions].” In other words, Gandalf was the wisest, most powerful member of the fellowship, and he could have swayed any decision he wanted, or persuasion failing, could have overpowered any of his companions with ease, but he didn’t. Instead, he advised and guided, and did not allow himself to play God with those in his care. He laid out the path, but it was up to them to walk it. What truth there is in that approach for us as educators, charged with the instruction, care, and discipling of young hearts, minds, and souls! To paraphrase Dr. (Phil) Ryken, “Evil wants to dominate. Our role is to guide.”
Of course, Dr. (Leland) Ryken’s approach for college students is not the same approach we utilize at The Oaks, but the principle remains the same - as educators we cannot dictate what our students will become, nor should we. Teachers are called to use their words for guidance, not coercion; we are called to know what our students need to succeed themselves, offer instruction, training, and age-appropriate encouragement, to establish a Biblical foundation for a lifetime of Christ-centered, kingdom living (Proverbs 22:6). We are training students for their own races, we cannot try to run for them.
Proof of such wisdom can be found throughout the book of Proverbs (1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19) and also in James, chapter 3. I never would have worked so hard if Dr. (Leland) Ryken had tried to mold me into an academic just like him, or what he thought I should be. Instead, he found a way to inspire me, push me, and let me grow into the academic I was created to be. As teachers we must instruct, disciple, and nurture, but we cannot try to dictate our students' outcomes, because we are not and cannot be perfect. Even the wisest, noblest among us - the Galdalfs of the world - cannot bear such responsibility perfectly.
Thankfully, we don’t need to be perfect, just to point to who was, is, and will be forever perfect. To paraphrase Sam in Return of the King, we already know that “everything sad [is] going to come untrue.” It’s our job to spread the word.
Thanks for reading. If you haven’t visited us on campus yet, please do! We are up to great things at The Oaks, and we’re pointing kids to Christ each step of the way.
All my best,
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,[a] and set on fire by hell.[b] 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace