An open letter: Why this theologian has nothing to say about Christian education

I have four daughters, two of whom went to Christian primary schools and then to a Christian high school, in both country Western Australia and Perth. Our experience of Christian primary schooling in the country was terrific. The school communities were supportive through difficult years for us and many of the teachers became our friends. They were around the same age and shared the same sort of values and we remain friends with many of them to this day.

Our experience of secondary Christian schooling was very different.

My dad was a board member of Kingsway Christian College in Perth, and so my first experience of that particular school was to hear about the politics, more specifically the board’s attempts to keep certain Christian groups out of the school — first, the Pentecostals, and then the South Africans.

Both strategies failed.

By the time my eldest daughter was ready to go to Kingsway I had just completed a Bachelor of Ministry at Perth Bible College, and was preparing to go into an honours degree at the Baptist Theological College. I was also pastoring a small Brethren church, but several years of preaching and teaching, as well as rather intense pastoral counselling, had brought me to a place of sudden burn-out. We moved out of the church manse and I informed the church that we were leaving to have a break, and we remained “between” churches while I struggled with anxiety and depression, heart issues and the like. Then we came to enrol our daughter in Kingsway.

For our daughter to attend Kingsway, my wife and I had to be members of the parent-controlled school. To be members, we had to submit several letters of commendation, from a pastor and elders etc, and then also demonstrate that we were attending church regularly. We were not doing this at the time, of course, because I was suffering burn-out. This didn’t matter to the board of Kingsway Christian College. We were not allowed to be members and our daughter was not allowed to enrol in the school. This was unacceptable to us, as the other schools in the area were not desirable — so we found a new church merely to ensure that our daughter would be given a place.

We shouldn’t have bothered. The standard of education at Kingsway was poor, and as I continued to pursue theological studies I was seeing ever more clearly that what passed for “Christian” education was instead a moralistic and behavioural understanding of what “Christian” meant. It also seemed to me that while the school was very clear about what it stood against and what it would restrict its students from engaging with, it was not so clear about what it stood for. Nevertheless, we enrolled our second daughter in the school, mainly because her friends from primary school, as well as cousins who lived close by, were also attending. Her experience of the educational standards at Kingsway were the same as our eldest daughter.

Four years later, I was completing my PhD and was applying for the position of Vice Principal at Laidlaw College in Henderson. As part of the application process I was asked to present a paper on the potential of theological education, and with the experience of Kingsway CC very fresh in my mind I set about the task of presenting an argument for a type of graduate profile based on what I believed would be a robust and theologically rich “Christian” education system, applicable to both secondary schooling and tertiary education. My paper began with a story about an illuminating experience I had had a few years before I flew to New Zealand for the panel interviews.

In 2004, the Irish rock band U2 released the album How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. As per usual, I headed to the CD shop to get my copy, and was lucky enough to discover a boxset which also included a nice-looking hardback book. Thinking this book included the lyrics to the album, I forked out the $60 or so and took it home. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered the book didn’t include the lyrics at all, but was merely pages and pages of childish drawings by lead singer Bono. I rang the shop and said that I was coming back in the following day to get my money back.

But that night, before going to sleep, I thought that I ought to take another quick look at Bono’s drawings. And what I discovered forced me to confess that I had acted too hastily in demanding a refund. The book was a piece of creative genius, and gave me a picture of the incarnation that has stayed with me.

From one end, the book begins with a quote from the Baghavad Gita: I AM DEATH THE MIGHTY DESTROYER OF THE WORLD, cited by J. Robert Oppenheimer as, “I am become death, shatterer of worlds,” on the occasion of the first test explosion of the atomic bomb, code-named “Trinity” in July, 1945. But turn the book around and begin reading from the other end, and it starts with a different quote: WE MUST BECOME THE CHANGE WE WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD, by Mahatma Gandhi.

On each subsequent page of the book, Bono takes a word or phrase from each quote, and deconstructs that word with the story of God, as he understands it, from his reading of the scriptures. For example, he takes the words “I am” from the first quote, and with them says something about the God of Abraham, which also links to a song on the album. When he gets to the word MIGHTY, he draws a picture of himself as a mouse with sunglasses, in order to say something about the real ALMIGHTY, who reveals himself not in power and might but in love. Down the very bottom of this page, Bono scrawls the words: That the same force of love and logic would describe itself as a child born in shit and straw … what poetic genius is this?

Bono goes one step further — he crosses out the word GENIUS and writes underneath, JESUS.

“What poetic Jesus is this?”

Bono gives a similar treatment to every word and phrase from both quotes throughout the book. The reason each end of the book starts with a different phrase is because he gets them to meet in the middle pages, with a picture of the WORLD (which is the final word of each quote), and around this he writes COEXIST, which is a campaign that has arisen in recent years to draw attention to the fact that Christians, Jews and Muslims share the same forefather, Abraham.

I was stunned with the simplicity yet complexity of this piece of work, and with the depth of thought and intelligence, but also the theological awareness and spirit to produce something so profound to accompany a rock album. I had encountered this in Bono before. His liner notes for the Johnny Cash album GOD, for example, contain a more dynamic and engaging exegesis of the golden calf story from Exodus than I had read anywhere else. And his book, Bono On Bono, in which Bono is interviewed by an atheist French journalist about subjects such as family, music, and faith, contains some of the most profound statements on the theology of the cross that I have come across. The following is an example:

I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled … It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.

In my talk to Laidlaw faculty as part of my application process, I used Bono as an example of how I envisioned a graduate of a robust, free and spirited Christian education system — one that equipped its graduates with the ability to read the scriptures with intelligence and spirit, but which also equipped them to dialogue with other disciplines: economics, politics, history, science, literature, art, dance, mathematics. My PhD work on Isaiah had incorporated the ideas of a Russian literary philosopher called Mikhail Bakhtin, and from his work I knew already that the purpose of dialogue was not to reduce a spirited conversation down to a single idea or even a set of principles or bullet points … the purpose of a conversation is to dwell within a multiplicity of voices and allow the dialogue to create an entirely new form of truth, but in that to know your own voice so well that you maintain a valid seat at the table. In my talk I argued that this was the purpose of Christian education: to equip graduates to engage with the world around them, armed to the teeth with theological knowledge, yet hungry and curious enough to listen, to talk, to keep learning.

I didn’t get the Vice Principal position, which had already been promised to someone else. But I did get a job at Laidlaw: the Head of Counselling. I got the job on the basis of my paper and the vision that I set out, and was led to believe this was the direction Laidlaw was heading. But while there were some dynamic times at Laidlaw as we struggled against the status quo to test whether this vision was workable, it was apparent that the institution could not and would not shift. The board decided not to renew the contract of CEO Mark Strom, and his vision, which had by then incorporated my own, was dismantled for one more favourable to the college’s church stakeholders. The dynamic learning programs that had been uniquely written to carry the vision forward were shut down, and the college’s vision of teaching students how to move seamlessly from theology to economics, philosophy and politics, was lost.

One thing that did happen during that time was the incorporation of the Masters teaching program into Laidlaw as the School of Education. I had the privilege one time of conducting a workshop for the school, during which I asked for their definition of a Christian teacher. Their first, ill-considered answer was that it was someone who was punctual, and someone who wore a skirt at a modest length. The picture I was given was that a Christian teacher was someone who behaved in a way that testified to their Christian beliefs.

I was despondent at this. I understood the merits of behaving professionally and dressing modestly, but was this really what was meant by “Christian”? It made me question again whether Christians even know what being “Christian” is? If the staff of a tertiary theological college’s School of Education were interpreting it this way, what hope was there for the graduates of their program, and then for the children that they would teach in the classroom?

I realised that part of the problem was that we have accepted a whole lot of definitions of what “Christian” means, so that when it comes to thinking about “Christian education” we default to those definitions, potentially constructing an educational program around ideas that have distorted the radical nature of the gospel story. Hence the behaviouralism and moralism that I had seen in the schools attended by my own children.

Instead of defaulting to definitions, should we not be defaulting to the person of Jesus himself, and to the historical events by which he impacted the world in the first place? I’m talking about the crucifixion and the resurrection. I always got the impression from the Christian schools that I had been involved with that they were too overly concerned with an ideal of godliness, holiness, purity and excellence — that somehow this was the “special character” that set them apart: conservatism, pietism, moralism, behaviouralism. That is the problem when you begin with a particular interpretation of “Christian” and work outward from that point. But if you go back beyond “Christian”, to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, how then might “Christian” be understood? This became my mission.

My understanding on this has been shaped by the likes of Jurgen Moltmann, whose challenging book The Crucified God seeks to dismantle illusionary, bourgeois and idolatrous understandings of what it is to be Christian. Moltmann says this:

Every symbol points beyond itself to something else. Every symbol invites thought. The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the cross, and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, the cross ceases to be a symbol and becomes an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation.

What would the special character of a Christian educational institution look like if it were shaped by a theology of the cross, rather than a Christian idea/idol? Would it exclude the children of a burnt-out pastor, or would it welcome them with open arms? Would it be more concerned with where the hem of a skirt sat or the punctuality of its staff, or concerned more with how well its staff engaged with students in their experiences of abandonment, isolation, and exclusion? Would it ban books and shut down particular avenues of learning, or would it encourage journeys of discovery that helped its students understand more fully the human condition that the crucified God stepped into in order to bring reconciliation?

If I’m honest, I have always struggled with the dissonance between what I see happening in the cross and resurrection, and the so-called Christian school system, particularly the schools that exclude particular students on what seem like arbitrary grounds, or shut down thought, or ban books, or silence discussion. I don’t understand why a so-called Christian school refuses to let a student give a paper on abortion or euthanasia or will keep books like Harry Potter out of its library? Shouldn’t they be the very places where such issues are discussed and processed more robustly, in light of the knowledge of the cross and resurrection of Jesus? Shouldn’t they serve as opportunities not only to teach students about such issues, but also to equip them to dialogue in an attitude of humility but also conviction, with people who hold and espouse such views?

The conclusion I have come to over many years regarding Christian schooling is that it has become shaped more by fear than love. In the place of love of people, love of learning, love of life, love of others, love of the world, love of knowledge, it seems to have become marked more by a cautious stand-offishness, if not a downright rejection, of any type of thought that it doesn’t understand.

And that’s how I come to be writing this open letter, rather than the paper I intended to write. Until the Christian schooling system opens its doors — to people, to knowledge, to Jesus! — I can’t imagine having anything to contribute that would be useful. Christian schooling doesn’t need a theological revision, it needs a revolution — a revolution in thought, in values, in purposes and goals — based on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, and not upon “Christianity”.

Why does it need a revolution? Because the world as it is, our world in chaos, doesn’t need graduates who are overly concerned with punctuality or the length of their skirt, it needs graduates who are animated with the spirit of Jesus, the crucified God, and who have the skills and the knowledge and the daring to step into that world and make a difference. How is a student who has been denied the opportunity to learn about a controversial issue in a “safe” environment such as the classroom of a Christian school expected to be able to speak into situations dominated by concerns about ISIS, or Donald Trump, or Brexit, or Bastille Day attacks in Paris? How is a student who has been denied access to relatively benign books like Harry Potter meant to contribute to fields of literature or art or music or dance? If racing against men makes you tired, said the God of the Old Testament to the prophet Jeremiah, how will you race against horses?

Good question.

The world doesn’t need our Christian kids to be judgmental or ignorant or fearful. The world needs our Christian kids to be bold, educated, wise, articulate conversationalists who can dialogue with the very people, some of whom are clearly quite mad, who are perpetuating the chaos of the world they are entering. It needs passionate exegetes who are as skilled with the Bible as they are with The Economist. It needs writers like CS Lewis who understand why Harry Potter is so popular, or why Pokemon Go has taken the world in a sudden storm. It needs Christian doctors who understand why some people choose euthanasia and who will speak into that situation with tenderness and empathy rather than disgust. It needs sophisticated thinkers who can wrap their minds around issues that matter to the world, whether it’s same-sex marriage or abortion or drug addiction or consumerism, and speak to those issues with both intelligence and grace. And it needs well-equipped exegetes of culture who can engage with the “prophets” of our time, the Kendrick Lamars, the JK Rowlings, the Bonos, the Beyonces and the Kanye Wests.

My hope is that this revolution happens sooner rather than later, because this world is leaving us behind, and our irrelevancy is growing by the hour. The world is generating questions faster than we can process, and which are beyond our capacity to provide answers.

My suspicion is that “Christian schooling” is actually okay with this, which is why it has bolted the doors and closed all the blinds, and why it isn’t too concerned with the command to take up the cross, and follow the crucified God into the place of the outcast and abandoned. Perhaps it doesn’t agree that this is its calling, and that, as distinct from the Church, it needs to protect its “special character”. I can’t really speak to this. All I can speak to is the admission that my accumulated encounters with Christian schooling have left me feeling not up to the task of speaking into it. The truth is, I’ve lost heart for the conversation, suspecting that my own voice will be of no consequence, or worse, that what I contribute theologically will wind up as another cog in some idolatrous mechanism.

In his book Proper Confidence, Lesslie Newbigin says the following about truth:

If ultimate truth is sought in an idea, a formula, or a set of timeless laws or principles, then we do not have to recognise the possibility that something totally unexpected may happen. Insofar as our knowledge is accurate, we shall be able to predict the future. Future and past are governed by the same laws, the same principles, and the same realities. But if we find ultimate truth in a story that has not yet been finished, we do not have that kind of certainty. The certainty we have rests on the faithfulness of the one whose story it is. We walk by faith.

While Christian schooling is characterised more by the former, I feel I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. If ever it finds that it is characterised more by the latter, I’m sure I won’t be the only one who is eager to come along for the ride. In the meantime, my hope is that you are able to influence the journey and steer Christian schooling on a revolutionary new path, for all our sakes.

David Williams, PhD

July 17, 2016