Mission Tension 7: Excellent and Christian


Mission Tension 7:

Excellent and Christian

February 2024 

Dear Trinity Community, 

In this, the seventh and last in my series of reflections on inherent tensions in the Trinity  
mission, I’d like to consider the tension that I feel between the pursuit of excellence on the  
one hand and our commitment to being a Christian school on the other.  


Mission Tension 7: Excellent and Christian 

There are two points I want to acknowledge up front. First, the word “excellence” is not  
anywhere in our mission statement. Second, even raising the question about a conflict between excellent and Christian  will be offensive to many. I hope to address both of these in this piece.  

Those who turn good into great are motivated by a deep creative urge and an inner compulsion for sheer unadulterated  excellence for its own sake. Those who perpetuate mediocrity, in contrast, are motivated more by the fear of being left  behind.

Here Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, reflects our culture’s values for superior human effort, singular  achievement, and perfectly crafted outcomes. There is an Aristotelian notion of rarity here: the bull’s-eye of excellence is  hard to hit, and few do. To hit that mark requires extraordinary sacrifice and focus. As Samuel Johnson said, “Those who  attain to any excellence commonly spend life in some single pursuit, for excellence is not often gained upon easier terms.”  Further, such excellence is often externally adjudicated—by the stopwatch, by the scoreboard, by the guild, by the New  York Times Best Sellers list, by the stock market, by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  

What school would want to say, “Nah. We’re going for mediocrity”? It’s only a hunch, but I’m betting that if you threw all  the mission statements of all the schools in America into a word cloud, the word excellent would be as large as any other  descriptor. Why is it not part of Trinity’s explicit mission? The omission is all the more striking at a classical school, for  there are strong strands of what has been called elitism (i.e., educational excellence) in the classical tradition, going back  to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an aristocracy of virtue and talent, and continued in Albert Jay Nock’s distinction between  training for the many and education for the few (“The Nature of Education”). Even W. E .B. Du Bois espoused this kind of  winnowing of talent as he contemplated how best to advance the cause of African Americans in The Talented Tenth.  

I want to suggest that for Trinity School there must be another way. Not a way that eschews excellence altogether, but  neither the full-on acceptance of all the terms of our culture’s demands and standards. Ambition, striving, the appreciation  for extraordinary grace and strength—these are human appetites, and as C. S. Lewis says, “God makes no appetites in  vain.” But in us fallen human beings, they are dangerous, and we are easily tempted by their misuse to sin. What would they look like in redeemed and sanctified form?  

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the place to go to answer this question. It’s one of the few places where Scripture uses  the Greek word for excellence (that should tell us something!): “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,  whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8). The book of Philippians  is a profound exploration of what it means to be the best (1:9-10), to be exalted (1:20), to strain toward a goal (3:13- 14). Timothy (“I have no one else like him”) and Epaphroditus (“Honor men like him”) are held up as extraordinary, but the greatest Exemplar is Jesus Christ (“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”). We see in all this the  wonderfully subversive redemption of the Gospel. Paul is celebrating the best and urges the Philippians to strive toward  this best, following Paul’s example and celebrating Christ’s archetypal incarnation. But this best is defined not by the  ways of the world, but by the contours of the Gospel, principally by the death and resurrection of Christ. What does this  look like at a place like Trinity School? How do we live in the tension of Christian excellence, what I will call cruciform  excellence? (I am deeply indebted here to Greg Jones and Kevin Armstrong’s Resurrecting Excellence.) 


We care more for the opinion of God than for that of human audiences. We will surely enter the lists for the state  championship, for Governor’s School and the Morehead-Cain Scholarship, for admission to selective colleges, and  for a high GPA. But let our gaze be beyond these, on the Audience of One. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead,  Congregationalist pastor John Ames, looking back on his long life, thinks about God this way:

Calvin says somewhere  that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in  the ordinary sense. 


The Kingdom of God privileges those who are often bypassed by normal narratives of excellence (the poor, the  lame, the blind, etc.). What this means for a school is not easy to discern, but our admission policies, our academic  programs, our student supports, our Profile of a Graduate, and more ought somehow to reflect this upside-down nature of  Christian excellence.  


Even as we pursue human excellence, we are wary of our fallen tendency to ruin almost any good enterprise.  “Who can discern their own errors?” (Psalm 19:12) Let us beware of ambition for ourselves and not for Christ and his  glory. How do we respond when others succeed? Do we celebrate the excellence of others, for the glory of Christ? Even  harder, perhaps, how do we respond when we succeed? How does our helping hurt? Where is our best work stained with  unintended harm? “Weak is the effort of our heart and cold our warmest thought,” as the John Newton hymn reminds us.  Let’s not take ourselves too seriously, but learn to take God and others more seriously. 


We learn to offer our best back to God as his gift and not as our accomplishment. All of the smarts in our head, all  the grace in our bodies, all the beauty in our voices or bow strokes, all the innovation in our fertile brains, all the fine turns  of phrases, all the business successes—all of this is but the flowering of the gifts God has given us. “We give thee but  thine own.” This is the heart of Non Nobis:

Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.

(Psalm 115:1)

This is the last of my reflections on the tensions that we live in here at Trinity School. None of them is easy to hold, but  all are important. The Bible is replete with such tensions (already but not yet, in the world but not of it, strength through  weakness), and I think they arise from the fundamental truth that Christ has conquered sin and death by becoming sin for  us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and bringing about the death of death through his own death. In a world upside down, only the  Upside Down Man will be right side up. And so it is with a school that takes the name of this God-Man: It too must walk  the tensions that come with following him in this world that is still upside down. It will not always be so, but until he  comes again to set all things right side up, we will live “as though not” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31), following the Crucified  Risen King in this present world.  

Non Nobis, 

Chip Denton 
Head of School