Christian schools have been in the news lately, and not always for the happiest of reasons. But, even as we take stock of their potential failings, let’s not lose sight of the beauty that they can create.
What’s wrong with Christian schooling? If you’ve been following the #ExposeChristianSchools conversation on Twitter, you know plenty of Christian school alums are trying to figure that out. Yesterday, Dan Levin had an article up at the New York Times chronicling the responses he’s received to the question, both negative and positive. I was happy to have spoken with Dan several times over the weekend as he was doing research for the story. I found him to be a genuinely honest, curious, open reporter doing his best to sort through the complex story of Christian education in America.
Almost all of the complaints of those who contributed to his piece could be filled in one of two categories: (1) abuse of power and (2) anti-intellectualism. In addressing both of these points, I hope to acknowledge the real pain and mistreatment many have experienced in our schools, while also insisting that such conduct is not the result of our faith, and indeed stands in stark contradiction to our creed.
Abuse of Power
Despite the Christian tradition’s long history of founding institutions of learning which produce communities of peace, justice, and human flourishing, many students have experienced a Christian school that uses the faith as a brute tool for behavioral modification rather than a means of spiritual formation. There can be no doubt that young people have been berated and bullied in our hallways and classrooms.
We must acknowledge that Christian schools, like all other human institutions comprised of flawed individuals, are not sinless places and should never claim to be. If those of us laboring in the Christian schools are to grow, we have to hear with penitent hearts the stories of those we’ve failed. Indeed, it strikes me that our inability to listen, coupled with our knee jerk reaction to self-protection has done as much to harm those we’ve been entrusted as the initial offence.
The Covington High School story offers an unfortunate but perfect example of this instinct. Reading their initial statement about the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, in light of all the evidence, should be retch-inducing for any Christian school leader. They promise to investigate, but not before they “condemn.”
The following three facts combine to make their initial statement inexcusable: (1) the kids were getting serious threats to their safety (2) the school was likewise receiving an untold number of threats, and (3) the school surely had known the student’s side of the story by the time of the statement’s release. It’s hard not to conclude that the school decided to de facto affirm the misguided narrative in an effort to relieve the pressure they were receiving and keep it on the students.
When the bad guys come, the adults tell the kids, “get behind me.” It’s that simple, it’s that hard. If you can’t do it, don’t work at a school. Shepherds within both Roman Catholic and Protestant institutions have shown far too many times that when the choice is between their own reputations and the lives of children, the wolves will be well fed. That reflex is as dangerous as it is damnable, as we’ve seen, and shouldn’t be tolerated. While the Covington incident is in one way unique, in all of the important ways it’s all too typical.
Having said that, I want to insist that when the powerful use their positions to advantage themselves at the expense of the vulnerable, they aren’t doing so because of their faith, but in spite of it. Far from propping up arbitrary, faux authority, the Christian faith naturally empowers the vulnerable and gives voice to the under-advantaged. John Paul II proves this point by demonstrating its opposite, concluding his historical outline of authoritarianism with the summation, “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Many who’ve graduated from Christian schools recount an environment hostile to serious intellectual inquiry, especially that inquiry related to the sciences. A desire to teach about God’s word should never come at the expense of a passion to teach about God’s world. Indeed, as the Belgic Confession puts it, nature is, “a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.”
Not only are science and theology not in conflict, they offer complementary avenues to explore the same reality. To continue the aforementioned metaphor, if science is the study of “letters” and “words,” then theology is the study of that great plot which gives context and meaning to those words.
This tradition of deep reflection and appreciation of the world around us—seen in the scientific exploits of people like Bacon, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, and Kepler—reminds us that the culture of anti-intellectualism found in many Christian schools is simply incompatible with a Christian cosmology.
In Christian education, the world is seen as a place of deep meaning and cohesion, united ultimately by the person and work of Christ (Colossians 1:17). Not only the external world, but the student is likewise viewed holistically—body, soul, and spirit. A distinctively Christian pedagogy tears down all artificial barriers, whether between the “sacred” and “secular” or even between the humanities, athletics, and the sciences.
In their wonderful book The Passionate Intellect authors Klassen and Zimmermann insist that a Christian approach to education will view “the various academic disciplines much as Paul views the church members: different parts united by serving one common Founder in the pursuit of humanity’s restoration.”
Indeed, Christ’s entire mission is one of a restorative unification: Heaven with earth, us with himself, us with the Father, us with one another, us with ourselves. How could education, then, be anything but a process of de-compartmentalization? First of subjects, then of our very person: Christ making our thoughts, desires, and actions coherent, whole, human.
At its best, this is what Christian schools offer—that which the Judaeo-Christian tradition calls Shalom. It offers peace with God, peace with one’s self and one’s neighbor, and peace with the world around us. Yes, many of our students have encountered a culture of abusive authority and anti-intellectualism—such experiences should be heard and lamented.
But we should also take heart that for many wounded students, their Christian school is a place of refuge; a place they are affirmed as children of God who reflect His image. In short, the Christian school is a place where broken people seek profound wholeness. The Christian school at which I’m privileged to teach is such a school, and I know countless others exist as well. Even as I grieve the failures, I rejoice in the successes.
Dustin Messer is the Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of the forthcoming book, Secular Sacraments.