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Why Christian Education? (Part 2)

In Christian Education, False Dichotomies - the lines between on July 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Read: Why Christian Education? (Part 1)

Several years ago, my pastor at the time, and friend, and I had a long discussion regarding Christian Education. He felt that for Christian parents to send their children to a Christian school was dualist (in the sense that the things of Christ are considered separate from the things of life—a sacred/secular dualism). My response to this was that the sort of Christian school that I worked at was founded on the premise that that one can’t separate Christ from the rest of life. He may have been equating Christian schools in general with the sort that arises out of what Niebuhr called Christ against Culture stance (Read more). This view is certainly dualist for its advocates see a separation between the things of this world and the spiritual world ruled by God. My school, and others like it, expresses a rejection of the sacred/secular dualism.

In this part, I would like to address this and some of the other objections to Christian schools.

To my pastor, I argued that if he wanted to avoid dualism, he ought to be hesitant about sending his children to the local public school which operates under the same dualistic philosophy, albeit from the other side. My contention is that the ideas of modernism are still deeply rooted in our culture and foundational to modernism is the separation of the religious from the secular.

Many aspects of North American culture are still largely under the influence of modernism. In a recent instalment of the CBC program Ideas (“After Atheism, Part 3”) producer David Cayley says, “To be modern is to divide the world up into two realms, a public secular sphere in which things are judged rationally according to agreed standards of evidence and argument, and a private religious sphere in which irrational opinion and existential decision hold sway.” Religion was seen as the “source of oppression, obscurantism, and unending war, until the state tamed this unruly power and put it in its place.” This idea, says Cayley, “is in many ways the founding myth of modern society.”

. . . crossing the lines between sacred and secular, between public an private,

Not surprisingly, this modern view of religion is apparent in our modern institutions. In the United States, the idea of the separation between church and state has come to mean exactly this. In Canada, the courts have determined that the “freedom of religion” guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, means that citizens have the right to follow their own religious beliefs, but it does not only mean freedom OF religion, but also freedom FROM religion. In order to satisfy both, religion is relegated to the private sphere. Canadian courts have also said that the Charter applies to school boards. Schools recognize the importance of religion in providing a moral and spiritual framework for life so religion can be taught, but must be done so in a neutral and academic fashion.

There are two problems with this idea, however.

The first is that neutrality is not possible. A neutral stance toward religion is not a neutral stance.  In that the preferment of neutrality is a way of looking at reality in general and all other religions in particular, it is, in essence, a religious claim. To claim that we ought to exclude the religious voice from public discourse is implicitly religious for it is based on a set of beliefs about the world and the human beings’ place in it. My argument here is that the idea of a non-religious school is a myth. The question is not whether or not one should send one’s child to a religious school; the question is, to which religious school will one send them?

The second problem with relegating religion to the private sphere is that religion can’t be private. It is impossible for anyone to enter the public sphere and leave their convictions at the door. This is true of every belief, including those of secularism.

Christianity certainly cannot be relegated to the private sphere. Paul says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 15-17).

C. S. Lewis says the same thing: “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” I like how Abraham Kuyper puts it. In his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University, he said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

My pastor friend was resistant to the dualism inherent in the Christ against Culture type of Christian school, because it limits the Lordship of Christ to only a narrow slice of life. But I think that it is equally problematic for those who believe in the universal sovereignty of Christ to send their children to a school which insists Christ’s authority is to be confined to the private realm. Both are based on false dichotomies: public/private, culture/Christ, physical/spiritual, reason/faith, to name a few.

Christianity, at its core, is an orientation of one’s entire life toward a person—the Son of God and Redeemer of all that is. Every other belief is subordinate to this Truth. Our culture, however, asks us to subordinate this Truth to the truth claims made by a secular religion. I do not hold this against its proponents, for every religion subordinates the beliefs of every other religion to its truth claims. It’s just that the devotees of this modern secular religion insist that their beliefs aren’t religious.

This is why I am a passionate supporter of Christian Education for all Christian families. No education is neutral and all education is religious. For Christian families, the education their children receive in school ought to be one that places Christ at the centre.

There are a few other objections to Christian education that I wanted to address directly. The first is that Christian schools shelter children from the real world. The second is that the Bible calls us to be salt and light to the world, and by sending children to a Christian school, we are, in effect, hiding out light under a bushel. And third, Christian education is too expensive.

First, Christian schools shelter students from the “real” world.

This is an objection that comes from the assumption that all Christian schools are as Niebuhr’s Christ against Culture stance. Hopefully, the awareness of the other two has taken care of this objection, but I will offer one more word. First of all, it is not even possible to shelter students from sin. Sin lives in the Christian school when the first person unlocks the door in the morning. So we have to deal with idolatry and selfishness and gossip and bullying and theft just like every school does. The difference in the Christian school is that it brings the Word of God to every situation in the lives of the children. We don’t just “explore, evaluate, and experience” sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but “all of life under God.” The selection of teaching materials and library books, etc. is not based on the protection of our students from the evil in the world, although age appropriateness is one of the criteria. These resources are selected for their usefulness to explore as well as discern the world. We don’t shy away from issues around sexuality, violence, justice, nor do we avoid non-Christian thinkers and authors, film makers, or artists. We hold up expressions of faith to the critique of deconstructionists, feminists and Marxists. Our work is not characterized by isolation, but inoculation.

A second objection to Christian education is that Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), and by sending out children to a public school we are fulfilling this mandate. I agree that Christians ought to “let [their] light shine before men,” but this injunction is meant for Christians, not the children of Christians. I would also suggest that even if a child is a Christian, to be salt and light requires some wisdom and spiritual maturity.

Secondly, I suggest that we not limit the call to be salt and light to the individual Christian. North Americans, including North American Christians, are tremendously individualistic. This is one of the very idols that a good Christian education attempts to reveal and combat. We tacitly interpret our world through an individualistic lens. The Christian school is salt and light in the world, but it is a corporate response.

This has been born out continuously at Abbotsford Christian School. Just as an individual Christian teacher is salt and light to their colleagues in their public school, so too is the Christian school salt and light in the field of education. Individuals cannot be salt and light in the same way that communities can, and vice versa. We have something to share regarding teaching practices, employee relations, special education and learning assistance, recycling, bullying, assessment, supervision of teachers and students, etc. We have something to share because what we believe about Jesus Christ is true, not just for Christians, but for everyone and everything. So, we collectively witness to all those involved in education. Our staff is involved in many professional groups relating to their specific field within education. We are also visited frequently by teachers and principals, special education and learning assistance teachers and coordinators, coaches, counsellors, government inspectors and elected officials. Further, our students are involved, as Abbotsford Christian students, in the community. We regularly hear that Abbotsford Christian School is being salt and light in the broader community, by that very community.

I am not saying that Christian teachers ought to be teaching only in Christian schools, as a matter of fact, this is a vital place where the light of the gospel needs to be reflected. I also want to be clear that I am not saying that sending one’s children to the public school is the wrong thing to do. I have heard many stories of Christian children being a blessing in their local schools. What I do want to claim is that the salt and light argument ought not to be understood as a Biblical injunction to send Christian children to a public school.

A third objection is that Christian Education is too expensive. I agree that it is expensive—especially where the schools receive no government grants and the full cost falls to parents. In general, though, I would say that there are many things we can do without, or delay, that are less important than an education that reinforces a transformational and integrative view of life. I see this in our school community. For many, the family summer vacation is camping at the local provincial/state park. The cars that drop off the kids at school in the morning are often older than 10 years. It helps that Christian education is a community project in that the older generations continue to support the school which helps keep costs down. Also, local church congregations and the school itself may have programs available to help cover the costs of tuition for those who can’t afford it.

I wouldn’t be honest if I said that any school executes this model of Christian Education perfectly, because it’s very difficult and we suffer from all those human limitations. Also, it’s hard to discern the degree to which our collective view of the world is acculturated; it’s easier to swim with the cultural current than against it, and to constantly evaluate every part of life through the interpretive lens of the Gospel is hard work. There are many things to talk about – How we celebrate the graduation of our students in a way that reflects Christ’s Lordship? How do we create meaningful interaction between students of different ages and between students and older generations? We also need to continually talk about technology, which is always changing. There are many more.

It is most effective, and most fun, when we engage in the process of discerning and transforming our culture in community, including students. I also find it a tremendous blessing to work with others that have a clear focus—“to be faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.”

If you are looking for this type of education for your children, you can search for a school in your area at Christian Schools International (http://www.csionline.org/schools).

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