Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘Christian Education’

Conversation with a Textbook

In Christian Education, Worldview on November 1, 2013 at 5:54 am

Pathways-Banner

You won’t believe what this textbook said.

This is a conversation I had with a few pages of the new edition of  “Pathways,” a Social Studies textbook used in grade 8 classes.  The section was called “Religion and Civilizations.”

Me: Since you are written for use in public schools, it must be a little dicey when you talk about religion given that you are supposed to remain neutral on this sort of thing.  What do you see as the relationship between religion and civilization? 

Pathways:  “Religion is an important aspect of civilization.  In many civilizations, both in the past and in the present, religious beliefs are one way a civilization defines and describes itself.  Religion also influences people’s values and actions.” 

Me: I see.  And why do we study religion in grade 8?

Pathways: “Learning about different religions allows us to understand the civilizations to which these religions belonged.”

Me: That shouldn’t upset too many people, but as a religious person myself, I’d consider this a bit of a limited view.  Religion is more than a means by which we understand others, but I guess you’re limited in how much you can say about religion and still maintain your neutrality.   Tell me, what is your view on why we have religions in the first place?

Pathways:  “Human beings have always asked what we call ‘big questions.’  You have probably asked them, too.”

Me: Yes, I love the big questions.  That’s one of the reasons I like to blog.  But just to make sure we’re on the same page, what do you mean by big questions?

Pathways: What happens to me after I die? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How was all this created?

Me: Yes, these are pretty much the same as my questions.  I’ve heard them called worldview questions, and you are right; everyone asks them and everyone answers them (whether they admit it or not).  So what do these “big questions” have to do with why religion exists?

Pathways: “Human beings like to have answers to their questions.  Having answers make us feel more secure.” 

Me: Whoa! I might be jumping ahead here, but are you one of those people who believes the function of religion is to create a feeling–a feeling of security?   If that’s the case, then religion is pretty much a safety blanket for the weak, is it not?  I’ve heard some call it a crutch for those who can’t face “reality.”   Aren’t you supposed to be neutral on issues of faith?  I mean, it is a pretty low view of religion, isn’t it?  Most religious people understand that any security they may feel is merely a by-product of the more important search for truth and meaning–religion itself is actually a product of this search.   I understand I’m not being neutral either, but I think it’s impossible.  Is there no sense in which the big questions that religion answers might be rooted in a search for objective truth?

Pathways:  “But these big questions cannot be answered the same way ordinary questions can be.”

Me: I understand that, but just because they cannot be answered in the same way–or are harder to answer–does not mean the answers aren’t true.  Anyway, you were saying something about the difference between big answers and ordinary answers?  Can you elucidate?

Pathways: “For example, science tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.  This is based upon creating a hypothesis and then using experiments to discover if our original ideas were correct.  With religion, people have to accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. “

Me: I’ve noticed your word choice.  Did you know you consistently us the term “us” when speaking of knowing and the word “people” when speaking about believing?  I thought it was interesting how you distance yourself, and, consequently, your readers from the act believing.   Where were we?  Oh yes, you said that ordinary questions are the ones that can be answered empirically and big questions can’t be answered empirically so their answers are non-scientific.  That sounds bad when you put it that way.  Are you implying they are just sorta made up?

Pathways: “In effect, [people] have to accept them based on their beliefs (faith).”

Me:  You are saying that something can’t be” correct,” unless it is proven empirically: with scientific evidence.  That means the only things that can be true are things having to do with the properties, history and function of matter.  This would make sense, I suppose, if matter was all there is.  Wait, if you think that, you just answered a big question: “Is matter all there is?”  This is not an ordinary question, it’s a big question.  You can’t know if you are correct because this answer is based on non-scientific evidence.  If you are going to be answering big questions, I might accuse you of being religious.  Then what would happen to your neutrality?  Let’s move on.  So how do you explain why we have so many different religions?

Pathways: “Different Faiths, Different Answers”

Me: Could you elaborate?

Pathways: “There are many religions in the world, and each one has different answers to the big questions.” 

Me: Which one is right?

Pathways: “Which one is right? No one religion has the ‘right’ answers, because the big questions have no scientifically provable answers.”

Me: How do you know that to be true?  Isn’t that assertion based on non-scientific evidence?  I think you just answered another big question: Can something be true even if there is no empirical evidence to verify it?  Your answer to this one can only be right if your answer to the last one is right, and you can’t prove that one so you can’t prove this one.  Don’t forget about neutrality. 

Let me ask you something.  Isn’t a religion that teaches to love of one’s neighbours a little closer to the truth than one that teaches it’s OK to kill innocent children?  That doesn’t make sense to me. 

But, I digress.  Your claim to neutrality seems to be a little suspect; you seem to have very clear views as to how we understand the beliefs of others, but you aren’t really admitting when you accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence.  I’m not sure that you are suitable for use in a public school, because you seem to support one set of unscientifically supported beliefs, over all other sets.  My concern is for the students.  What do you say to a grade 8 student who is thinking about the big questions?  I don’t think it would be appropriate to explicitly discourage them from being involved in religion.

Pathways:  In Canada today, there are many different religions.  If you were looking for a religion to belong to, you could find out what different religions say about the big questions.  Then you could choose the religion with the answers you are most comfortable with, or that fit best with what you already think. 

Me: It doesn’t really matter what religion someone belongs to? At least you are consistent.   You suggest that the choice between religions is to be based on the feelings of comfort each offers or how well they conform to one’s preexisting ideas?  I understand that you think you are being equally fair to all religions, but you are not really.  You are being equally unfair.

People aren’t looking for comfort when they ask and answer the big questions, they are looking for truth–universal and objective truth–because they believe they can find it, just as you believe they can’t.   Given this, people can’t just shop for a religion like they do for a dress–take the one that fits.  (Nearly) every religion says that adherents need to conform to some objective moral standard.  If you are going to respect religion, you must recognize that, the individual conforms to religion, not the other way around.  Your method of selection is legitimate only if all religions were equal.  They can only be equal if your answers to the big questions are right.  But you haven’t proven that they are–because you can’t.

Aren’t you really saying that if everyone had your religion, then we’d all get along better?

Pathways:  “Even if you had a different religion than your friends, that probably would not matter too much.  If fact, you could probably learn something from each other.”

Me: I agree that people of different religions ought to get along.  But I don’t agree that this cooperation is contingent of not taking our religions seriously.  On the contrary, we can only get along if we give each other the freedom to take their faith seriously.  Wouldn’t the picture of true tolerance be a materialist, such as yourself, talking with a Christian and a Muslim over a good cup of coffee, disagreeing, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and the coffee all the while respecting each others beliefs, because, even though they are not scientific,  they are rational.

Wouldn’t this be a better picture to present to the grade 8 student? 

Legalize Hit Men?

In Christ and Culture, Christian Education on October 24, 2013 at 6:00 am

hitmenI was observing an English class at my school as they read the recent post by Betsy Childs entitled “Why We Should Legalize Murder for Hire.” 

Some were horrified at first at the suggestion that “hit men [could] provide a valuable service to society” by helping women deal with “unwanted marriages,” but they quickly understood they were dealing with satire.  Their appreciation of the author’s wit was evidenced by the readers’ giggles and parenthetic comments.

We don’t find out that the author is actually building a parallel between killing one’s spouse and killing one’s unborn child.

The students commended the cleverness of Childs’ analogy when she says that “matrimony severely curtails a woman’s freedom” and that “the better course is to avoid unwanted marriage in the first place,” and “it is her marriage; only she can decide when it must end” . . .

One student pointed out that Childs correlates  adoption to divorce when she says the latter “may be an attractive alternative to murder” but “some woman do not have the emotional and financial resources to go through a divorce.”

The students’ initial reaction to this article was positive.  

How would you take this if you were pro-choice?

I’d be mad.

It wasn’t very long and one student used the word “fallacy.” 

The students continued to ask each other questions:

Stacked evidence?

Not quite.

Faulty analogy? 

Yeah, that fits.

(Faulty analogy: an argument is based on misleading, superficial, or implausible comparisons.)

The students suggested that someone who was pro-choice would not accept the premise that the fetus was comparable to a husband, so this argument is only effective if someone accepts that premise.  They concluded that if your audience was pro-life, Childs’ argument was effective, but if it was pro-choice the argument would be ineffective.

Who is the audience?

Since this article was posted on The Gospel Coalition website, one can assume that the audience was conservative to moderate Christians.  The effect of the article was to reinforce the views of the audience.  In other words, it was preaching to the choir.  

What’s the point of writing this if your audience already agrees?

It was observed that the only effect of the article was to reinforce the view of those who agree that our society “celebrates [the murder of] family members”.  Several students pointed out that this, in itself, is not wrong, but because the tone was mocking this article  would simultaneously alienate opponents and enflame the passions of supporters.

Was this the purpose of the article?

If you get the two sides all riled up you can’t get anywhere.

How can Christians write about this issue that promotes dialogue?

A Christian Worldview?

In Worldview on September 14, 2013 at 4:28 am

Secular freedom storyThe term “Christian worldview” is often used, but not always understood.

Too often, people think that if you simply believe the Bible, oppose abortion and avoid R-rated movies you have a Christian worldview.  OK, this is a bit of a caricature, but my point is, Christians often have a far too superficial understanding of worldview.  Even Nancy Pearcy’s book Total Truth, which is a book about worldview, begins with the story of Sarah, a Christian woman who works as a counsellor in a Planned Parenthood Clinic.  Pearcy explains this incongruity:

“Sarah’s story illustrates how even sincere believers may find themselves drawn into a secular worldview–while remaining orthodox in their theological beliefs” (32).

Although Sarah’s story may illustrate what Pearcy says it does, it does not help readers to understand the depth at which we hold worldviews–Christian, Secular or whatever.

Here’s an illustration that I think better illustrates how deeply worldviews are held and the conflict between a Christian and a “Secular” worldview.

I’m teaching Grade 9 Humanities this year so I started reading the textbook.  I think it’s a standard textbook for Social Studies across the province.   I didn’t get beyond the first page and I knew that this year I would be teaching a lot of worldview in my class.  Two sentences in the introduction to the first chapter entitled “The Early Modern Age” grabbed my attention.  They present a worldview that is completely contrary to a Biblical one.

Here’s the first sentence:

Sometime around the year 1500, Europe began to experience profound changes in its political, religious, social, economic and intellectual life.  As a result of these changes, European history began to enter a new era–the Early Modern Age.

This is the second:

All civilizations experience a kind of evolutionary change in their histories.

The significant word here is “evolutionary.”  The popular use of the term “evolutionary” connotes a positive change.  The Free Online Dictionary captures the developmental aspect of the word when it defines evolutionary as “A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.”

Together these sentences suggest that humanity is moving toward a better world and that the Early-Modern Age was a significant step in that direction.  Many people accept this without batting an eye.

It is true that there were a lot of changes going on in Europe around the year 1500.  It is also true that some things have improved over the last 500 years–transportation technology, for example, is much faster than it used to be.  But is it true to say that our civilization has improved just because some aspects of it has?  A survey of the last hundred years–with two World Wars, one Great Depression, the nuclear arms race, ecological disasters, new and deadly diseases–provides a lot of evidence to the contradict the idea that things are getting better.

So why does the textbook make this claim?

They make it because it is true; true within a certain story.

No claim (or “fact,” thing, event, person) means anything until we place it into a story.  This is why human beings always tell stories — we are always seeking meaning.

All stories, whether myths or movies, share some common elements.  They always have a protagonist, a person who strives for some goal.  This quest drives the story toward a meaningful end.  Stories also have conflict because there are always antagonists, that is, a person (or people or a force) that impedes the protagonist in the fulfillment of his or her purpose.

Two stories concern us here:  the so-called “secular” story and the Christian story.  In the secular story, the dominant myth in our culture, the protagonist, humanity, is on a long quest for autonomy (freedom from authority).   Some of the antagonists in the secular story are  kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Many of these villains and monsters have been vanquished and only a few remain.

Because my grade 9 Social Studies textbook has placed the events following 1500 into this Secular story, it can claim that we have experienced evolutionary change in our history.

This is the dominant story in our culture, but it isn’t the only one.  The Christian story says that humanity will find fulfillment only in the presence of the loving God who made him.  Sin, the antagonist, thwarts humanity at every turn, but the hero of the story has come to find us and will bring us home (actually, bring home here).  This is the meaningful end of the Christian story.

When you consider civilization from this story, change has not been evolutionary–civilization has not improved because we have come no closer to dealing with our basic problem.  Freedom, according to this story, is a good thing, but Sin causes us to make GOOD things our objective instead of he who gave us the good things.  This inversion is, in essence, to make Freedom, into a god, a false god, an idol. Freedom is a good thing, but it is not the ultimate thing.

The secular story, or worldview, is foundational to my entire grade 9 social studies textbook and most of the other textbooks used in schools all over North America.  And it’s not just textbooks; it’s the worldview upon which the whole curriculum is built.  And it’s not just in schools, this story is reinforced by popular culture.  We are inundated with this story, and it is a powerful story.  When we consider the people who have fallen away from the church, I don’t doubt that many they left to seek autonomy–they wanted to do what they wanted to do and not have anyone or anything restrict their freedom.

One’s position on abortion is not a worldview–worldview runs much deeper–but your position on the issue of abortion is dictated by your worldview.  So will be your position on other issues that are, at their core, about human freedom.

I’m still using that textbook though, because discerning worldviews is one of the objectives of this and every other class taught at my school.  I worry for the Christian kids who aren’t in a school that is deliberate about exposing the competing stories in our culture.  And I also worry about the kids who are, because the secular story seems so true, because we are immersed in it.

I take more than a little comfort in the fact that none of the competing stories ring so true as the one where sin is the antagonist and the end is being reunited with the One who gave us every good thing–including Freedom.

 

 

Why Christian Education? (Part 1)

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on July 15, 2012 at 6:36 am

I was at a church service some months back and a guest pastor was, in essence, exhorting the congregation to get out of their Christian ghetto and do some good for the world.  He has a point, of course.  It’s easy to live in the suburbs and surround ourselves with other Christians who indulge in the same flavour of the faith that we do.  I agreed with the guest pastor completely until he suggested that this meant getting children out of Christian schools.  I was taken aback, but then some in the audience responded with applause and cheering.  Maybe I am a little sensitive, but I thought I heard some vindication in their applause.

As someone who has dedicated 30 years to the furthering of Christian education, I was saddened as I drove home, first, because there seems to be a passionate opposition to Christian education in at least part of the congregation, but more so, because the minister’s comments were based on a complete misunderstanding of Christian Education as I experience it every day.

Many sincere Christian parents send their children to the local public school.  This may be because there is no local Christian school, or because of financial constraints.  There are some, like the guest pastor, that believe the children of Christian parents are to be salt and light in the world.   Other more philosophical types have told me that they wish to avoid a sacred/secular dualism.  I will assert that the school that best addresses these concerns is the Christian school.  I don’t mean just any Christian school however.  There are different kinds and I’m not ready to defend all of them with equal fervor.

There are many reasons parents send their children to a Christian school.  This decision is often influenced by one’s view of culture and the Christian’s relationship to it.  Differing views of this relationship also results in different types of Christian schools.  In his book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes various Christian perspectives on the relationship between Christ and culture.  These responses are useful for distinguishing these different types of schools.

One group of Christian school advocates sees an antithetical relationship between the culture and those who proclaim Jesus as Lord. Niebuhr calls this stance, Christ against Culture. Adherents believe that to be loyal to Christ one must reject culture.  One of the problems with this view, according to Niebuhr, is that separation from the world isn’t really possible.  Further, this view seems to presuppose that sin lies in culture and that by avoiding culture, one can avoid sin.  A final problem is that, at its root, the Christ against Culture model seems to suggest that Christ has little or nothing to do with culture—that the material world of which culture is a part, is at odds with the spiritual world, ruled by God.

It is not difficult to understand why adherents of this view of culture would seek a separate Christian education for their children.  The public school, like culture as a whole, would be seen to contain much that is in opposition to the ways of God.  The purpose of the Christian school, then, would be to further the separation of the Christian community from the culture as a whole.

Not all Christians frame the relationship between Christ and culture as an either/or proposition.  Most see much good in culture that may, or even ought to, be embraced.  Some of these views can give rise to a second type of Christian school.  In these schools, because of a positive attitude toward culture, there is little reason for the curriculum to be much different than that of the local public school.  It is a Christian school because various devotional practices have been added to the schedule.  These would be things like devotions at the beginning the day, weekly chapels involving corporate worship, religious instruction and prayer, and Bible or religious education classes.  We might think of the Christian aspects of this sort of school as the creamy icing spread over the already pretty decent cake that is the standard curriculum taught in the public school.

This view of the relationship between Christ and culture is perhaps at the root of many sincere Christian parents sending their children to a public school.  What the child learns at school may be considered as, at worst, philosophically neutral and the religious instruction and devotional activities that occur in the home and at church are considered adequate for the spiritual nurturing of the child.

Where the first anti-culture view underemphasizes the good in creation, the critique of this pro-culture view is that it underemphasizes the extent to which sin has distorted God’s good creation—including culture.  The failure to appreciate the extent of sin’s corrupting effects, often results in a corresponding failure to appreciate the scope of Christ’s redemption.

. . . crossing the line between Christ and culture

There is a third type of Christian school, one that is unlike the Christ against Culture model in that it has a far more hopeful view of culture.  It is unlike the second in that it places greater emphasis on the depth and breadth of the effects of sin.  The view of culture from which this school arises is what Niebuhr calls the Christ transforming Culture model.  Adherents of this third type of Christian school recognize three fundamental truths.  First, that culture is a manifestation of God’s good creation and a product of human creativity and community.  Second, that sin distorts every part of this good creation, including human culture.  Thus, there is nothing created, that was not created good, but there is nothing that has not been distorted by the Fall.  A third truth is that Christ is the redeemer of all that God created.  This process began with his death and resurrection, and continues, even now, by the work of his Spirit in and through his people.  The task of the Christian, then, is to explore what it means to live faithfully. This means that we strive to transform culture by enhancing and celebrating the creational goodness and also discerning the presence of sin and working to reduce its effects.  The role of the Christian, then, is to take care of the environment, feed the hungry and take care of the sick.  It also means to be involved in culture as movie-makers, lawyers, florists, plumbers and union leaders that bless our neighbours.  It means being available if God chooses to work through our meagre efforts and transform our local communities, or even the world.

The work of Redemption is Christ’s, but we are invited to participate in it.  Rikk Watts of Regent College in Vancouver once left me with this analogy:  We are called to imitate Jesus, like a child who enthusiastically pushes his plastic lawnmower behind his dad when he’s mowing the lawn.  “Look Mom! We’re mowing the lawn!”

What kind of Christian School arises from this worldview?  It would not disengage from culture for that would be a failure to recognize the essential goodness of the creation found in it, but neither would it indiscriminately embrace culture (and I have found this is a much harder task that it first seems), for to do so is a failure to appreciate the distorting effects of sin that is present in all aspects of life.  This Christian school would, therefore, explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.

I work at Abbotsford Christian School and its mission statement clearly shows this transformational relationship between Christ and culture.

Abbotsford Christian School, operated by Abbotsford Christian School Society Members, seeks to serve Christian families by providing a secure learning environment in which God’s students can continue to explore, evaluate, and experience all of life under God.  We aim to nurture students in the discovery and development of their abilities and unique gifts so that they are enabled to be faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.

So what might this look like in an actual classroom?  One of the units I have taught in English 12 is called “Dystopian Literature and Film.”  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and sometimes Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; we analyze portions of films like, Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Our library includes books that are available for further reading in this genre, like The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale.  I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit on like this, but in our school the transformational worldview is foundational.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and that each novel/film is very critical of subverting the human’s essential value under some other aspect of creation. This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Humans are the image of God, and to supplant the human with something other aspect of creation degrades his image—in this way it is something akin to idolatry.  Thus, the unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and idolatry.  These artists are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing the image of God to the idols of power, pleasure, technology, society without murder, genetic perfection, bureaucracy, longer life, ease of life, survival, or religious paternalism, respectively.   It isn’t enough to learn these truths, however.  As a school, we are always engaged in helping students to blur the lines between knowing and doing.  There aren’t too many teachers that would just end a unit like this with a test or an essay.  Students are asked to respond in a personal way to what they’ve learned through this unit, identifying where and how this inversion occurs within their family, church, school, community or in the world.  This is how we strive to nurture the future transformers of our culture.

At schools like Abbotsford Christian School, it’s not just the lessons and units that make it a Christian school.  All aspects of the school fall under the Lordship of Christ: our understanding and use of technology, our approach to learning assistance and special education, the way discipline is carried out, how budgets are finalized and the programs we offer.

Human experience in this world cannot simply be divided up between good and evil where we, as Hamlet says, “Throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half.” Nor can we live as if Christ is something we can add to the surface of culture like icing on a cake.  Rather, Christ’s Lordship is at the core of every aspect of life—and this would include the way we educate our children.

Rather than isolating children, as the guest pastor supposed, a Christian education can be instrumental in nurturing graduates who will be “faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.”

Read: Why Christian Education?: Part 2